Opinion
Federal Opinion

Note to Progressives: Betsy DeVos’ Weakness Is Her Disregard for Evidence

By Bruce Fuller — November 09, 2017 | Corrected: November 20, 2017 4 min read

Corrected: A previous version of this Commentary included a quote from Aaliyah Samuel, the director of the education division at the National Governors Association, with inaccurate wording. The quote has been updated.

Bruce Fuller, Opinion Contributor

—Photo: Craig Sherod Photography


Bruce Fuller, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, works on how schools and civic activists push to advance pluralistic communities. He is a regular opinion contributor to edweek.org where he trades views with Lance Izumi, on the other side of the political aisle. Read Lance Izumi’s response to this essay.

The reign of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, lording over the kingdom’s schools, seeks to levy higher taxes on struggling peons. Gluttony inside the castle, after all, must be fed.

So goes the Left’s attack on President Donald Trump’s education secretary: Shifting public dollars to private schools. Taxing the many to enrich the gilded class. Off with Robin Hood’s head.

Yet, is this caricature fair? How far does she depart from her boss’s pro-choice predecessors, Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?

Make no mistake, DeVos and Trump aim to move public dollars to well-off families who prefer tony private schools. This priority appears in the House Republican tax bill, debated this week on Capitol Hill, hijacking an existing college-savings deduction, known as 529 plans, to permit redirection of up to $10,000 to cover private K-12 tuition costs. According to a report published by the Brookings Institution, “the provision almost exclusively benefits the seven in 10 families with 529 plans who have six-figure incomes.”

Democrats lack a coherent narrative about how to build colorful schools free of stultifying bureaucracy and recalcitrant unions."

DeVos’ silent nod with Trump’s effort to scrap the option of deducting local tax levies when filing federal taxes further betrays her royalist leanings. It currently cuts 28 cents from federal taxes, on average, for each dollar paid in state and local taxes, now aiding roughly 24 million Americans earning under $100,000, according to a report by the Government Finance Officers Association.

“Most people will notice higher taxes under the Republican plan,” a senior congressional aide told me on the condition of anonymity, “and think, ‘Hey, I can’t spend more on my local schools.’”

This return to “double taxation” of middle-class income would fatten the U.S. Treasury by $1.8 trillion over the coming decade, paying for cuts going to big corporations and wealthy families. When fully implemented, the richest 1 percent would enjoy nearly one-half of this tax bonanza, reports the Urban Institute’s and Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center.

Most governors now oppose Trump’s move to shred the local tax deduction. “There’s not a governor in the room that doesn’t want a strong education base to help their kids and families get ahead,” Aaliyah Samuel, the director of the education division at the National Governors Association, told me recently.

DeVos, moving on a third front, advocates federal tuition credits, where well-off donors score tax savings when contributing to private school vouchers. But this is falling flat in the Senate. “It would take a sustained and lengthy engagement by the president, not just the [education] secretary, to move a choice initiative,” a senior Republican aide shared with me on the condition of anonymity. “Out in big western states, Republican senators don’t see vouchers as viable,” where scarce private schools are scattered across wide distances, the aide explained.

Distasteful profiteering also marks tax-credit schemes, as in Arizona where the Republican state Senate leader, Steve Yarbrough, earns about $125,000 a year from a scholarship organization that distributes private school vouchers while pushing to expand the program in his legislature, according to the New York Times.

Trump budget officials rightly argue that failing federal programs should be killed. But under that empirical standard, voucher initiatives that underwrite private schools in the nation’s capital, for example, should be shut down, showing no buoyant effects on student learning relative to peers attending nearby public schools. Vouchers have displayed positive competitive effects in Florida, the evidence repeatedly cherry-picked by DeVos.

At times, DeVos’ pious devotion to choice undercuts her own cause. Some 428 private schools have closed in Los Angeles over the past 15 years, mostly Christian academies, as detailed by my Berkeley colleague Malena Arcidiacono. Why? The unrestrained growth of charter schools—spurred by DeVos’ allies—kills off religious competitors.

Still, Democrats lack a coherent narrative about how to build colorful schools free of stultifying bureaucracy and recalcitrant unions. And what’s happened to the Left’s historical fealty to schools that foster tighter neighborhoods? Is the concerted attack simply playing into Trump’s polarizing hand?

Opening a dual-language Armenian school in Los Angeles wins praise from a variety of liberals. Then, they cringe when the Conference of Catholic Bishops urges “teaching to the mind, body, and soul,” as its policy director Greg Dolan puts it. “We really appreciate how [DeVos] advocates for placing parents first, [offering] a truer range of choices.”

Progressives like Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City eagerly grow nonprofits to run quality preschools. In 1972, Democrats made federal aid to higher education, in the form of Pell Grants, fully portable so students can choose to attend the college of their choice.

Betsy DeVos may become a weathered bumper sticker, faintly echoing Trump’s political base while flitting about in her personal jet. But the choice movement sprouts from progressive roots: cultivating schools in synch with the nation’s ethnic and religious pluralism.

Rather than vilifying DeVos, Democrats must surely hammer on her feudal tendencies and her blatant disregard for evidence. Then, articulate how a rainbow of public school options can respond to America’s differences, while speaking to our shared yearning for fulfilling communities.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal LGBTQ Students Are Protected by Federal Anti-Discrimination Law, Education Dept. Says
Schools violate Title IX when they discriminate against students based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the agency said Wednesday.
4 min read
Demonstrators gather on the step of the Montana State Capitol on March 15, 2021 protesting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Helena, Mont. The Montana Senate Judiciary Committee voted March 18 to advance two bills targeting transgender youth despite overwhelming testimony opposing the measures. The measures would ban gender affirming surgeries for transgender minors and ban transgender athletes from participating in school and college sports. Both bills have already passed the Montana House. They head next to votes by the GOP-controlled Montana Senate.
Demonstrators gather on the steps of the Montana State Capitol in March to protest bills on transgender students' ability to play on single-sex sports teams.
Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP
Federal What's at Stake in a Review of Federal Sex Discrimination Protections for Students
The Biden administration's review of Title IX may prompt new guidance on how schools deal with sexual harassment and protect LGBTQ students.
10 min read
Image of gender symbols drawn in chalk.
joxxxxjo/iStock/Getty
Federal Opinion Education Outlets Owe Readers More Than the Narratives They Want to Hear
It's vital that serious news organizations challenge runaway narratives and help readers avoid going down ideological rabbit holes.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Federal As GOP Leaves K-12 Out of Its Infrastructure Plan, Advocates Look For Alternatives
The GOP is proposing $1 trillion in federal dollars for the nation's infrastructure, but school buildings aren't part of their proposal.
6 min read
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C..
A trash can and pink kiddie pool are used to collect water that leaks from the roof into the media center at Green County High School in Snow Hill, N.C.
Alex Boerner for Education Week