How an unqualified Betsy DeVos might actually set school choice back

In general, I believe a president should be able to surround himself with people that support the agenda he was elected on by the citizens who voted.  It seems to me the appropriate place for disagreement and discussion about policy best occur when it is done by elected officials, where every 2, 4, 6 or 8 years voters have the opportunity to weigh in on their evaluation of their elected officials’ performance.

But on the confirmation, yesterday of Betsy DeVos, as Secretary of Education, 2, 4, 6 or 8 years of her being in this job are 2, 4, 6 or 8 years too many.  It is not because I disagree with some of the policies that she might support.  In general, I do wish there were mechanisms to allow students in failing schools to leave the school and choose to go somewhere else. I do wish that those for whom paying private school tuition is a significant economic burden could get some tax relief.  My problems are not about policy.

My problems are about an absolutely unqualified person to be the Secretary of Education.  Ms. Devos did not know even rudimentary educational terms, concepts or laws.  If you are going to advise states and help them, you need to understand whether or not the type of measurement you are going to use is standards (proficiency) or by the level of improvement by each individual student (growth).

If you are going to advise and assist states, you need a fundamental grasp of the current educational law.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is not a new idea.  It has been the law, under a couple of names since 1975.  The basic reason for the law is the belief that all children, regardless of ability, deserve a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).  Not only is this law not new, it has been tried and upheld in the courts as the right thing to do under the constitution.

These two concepts are basic undergrad concepts.  It is unbelievable that Devos was unprepared for even these basic, rudimentary questions.  How will she protect constitutional rights of students if she does not understand the basic laws in place to do so?  How can she help local states and school districts get better if she does not even know how to define what better means in education?

And when she was able to influence educational policy, what were the results?  Consider what the Michigan Board of Education president said to Education Week about her.  “Under the guise of expanded choice, the DeVos’ have been the agents of a purposeful effort to dismantle the traditional public schools and teachers unions even if the choices that are created don’t educate kids,” he said. “I’m pro-choice and pro-charter if it’s quality and about educating kids. They’re for choice for choice sake, as a vehicle to try and destroy the existing public school infrastructure.”

Even Republicans who supported her had to get promises from her that she would not push strongly for a federal voucher program.  And when the Michigan experience is considered, the results are poor at best.  There is little accountability for the $1 billion spent on charter schools in Michigan.  Moreover, there is not any state that has as many for-profit charter schools as Michigan.  Consider this for a moment.  A for-profit charter school.  Our students, children who have no choice about whether or not to go to school, are customers, sources of profit for a company.  And, consider further that graduation rates have been quite poor, especially in Detroit schools where many of these charter schools are.

Even the data collection agencies that DeVos’ supporters cite show that charter schools in Michigan have not lifted more students to high achievement.  In fact, for the twenty years of charter schools in Michigan, almost two of every three charter schools are well below state standards.  In fact, they are not performing any differently than the public schools they criticize.  And when considering some of the most challenging students to teach, charter schools do not do any better in Michigan.  The difference? Less accountability and more profit for the charter school operators.

To be sure, there are some high-performing charter schools.  But, there are some high performing public schools too.  In many ways, the poor education is received in areas of high poverty, where there is little real school choice, unlike the wealthy who have for some time been able to choose where their children go to school.  And what is the value of deconstructing the public accountability that schools should have if it is not available to the students who need it most?

And when standardized tests are considered in high schools, 14 of the 16 charter high schools did worse than the Detroit Public School high school.  While neither ACT average was great, the claim that students would do better if their parents had a choice, that the existence of such a choice would cause schools to improve, has not been the case.

If schools were run like businesses, there would be an important emphasis on data.  But it is the reliance on data, this lack of accountability that is precisely the problem in the programs that DeVos’ has pushed.  Rather than look at high-performing charter schools, looking at hard data, DeVos advocated creating even more for-profit charter schools with no oversight or accountability, just profits for those who ran them.

And this lack of oversight championed by DeVos will not help the school choice movement, it will hurt it.  If there is no proof that charter schools perform better than public schools, and that they might even do worse, who would reasonably support school choice?

And this is sad.  There are good reasons to support school choice.  But there must also be accountability that the money is given to educate students is, in fact, helping students to grow.  If charter schools provide the chance to improve students’ learning, lessons gained from them might be applied to other schools, even traditional public schools.

For that is the great promise of charter schools: the chance to try new ways to educate students, and then to measure the outcomes to see if students are better off or not.  School choice has every promise of making parents become more involved in school, as the next school is not a default choice, but is one where ownership is developed because of parents’ choosing what is best for their children.

And so while Trump supporters hail the unqualified choice of DeVos, with the illusion that school choice and vouchers and other initiatives will sweep the nation, there is the very real fear that an extremely unqualified Secretary of Education will make things worse in these very areas.

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