Betsy DeVos: Another Disastrous Appointment

Betsy DeVos will be the next Education Secretary in Trump's cabinet

If Americans agree about anything, it’s probably about the importance of education. Although there is substantial disagreement on what a “good” education looks like (guiding intellectual enlightenment ? teaching marketplace skills?), it is widely assumed that better education is an important part of any solution to our social ills, especially poverty.

There can be no equality of opportunity so long as disadvantaged children are trapped in substandard schools, especially under-resourced urban schools in majority-minority districts. Education reform efforts are recognition of that reality.

Despite the number of such reform efforts over the past several years, no one has yet developed a magic formula that consistently turns underperforming schools into academic success stories. We do, however, have a lot of experience with reform efforts that haven’t worked—several of which have made things worse.

Which brings me to President-elect Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary.

Douglas Harris, an economics professor at Tulane, has been a proponent of charter schools and a researcher of school reform. Friday, he published a scathing column in the New York Times, titled “Betsy DeVos and the Wrong Way to Fix Schools.”

The choice of Ms. DeVos might not seem surprising. Mr. Trump has, after all, proposed $20 billion to finance “school choice” initiatives and Ms. DeVos supports these ideas. Yet of all the candidates the transition team was apparently considering, Ms. DeVos has easily the worst record.

As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, she is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country….

Detroit is not only the lowest in this group of lowest-performing districts on the math and reading scores, it is the lowest by far…. The situation is so bad that national philanthropists interested in school reform refuse to work in Detroit….Michigan has the dubious distinction of being one of five states with declining reading scores.

In contrast, Harris points to New Orleans. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the city replaced most of its schools with charters; after a poor start, the state took over a third of them and revamped the system, increasing oversight and preventing cherry-picking of students.

After the reforms, the city’s standardized test scores have increased by eight to 15 percentile points and moved the district from the bottom to almost the state average on many measures. High school graduation and college entry rates also seem to have improved significantly, even while suspensions, expulsions and the rate of students switching schools have all dropped. Detroit and New Orleans represent radically different versions of school choice — and the one that seems to work is the one that uses the state oversight that Ms. DeVos opposes.

Harris notes that New Orleans is also important because it is the only city in the country in which charter school results can be compared to results for school vouchers, the approach Ms. DeVos prefers.

In a study my center released this year, researchers found that the statewide Louisiana voucher program had exactly the opposite result as the New Orleans charter reforms. Students who participated in the voucher program had declines in achievement tests scores of eight to 16 percentile points. Since many of these students received vouchers through a lottery, these results are especially telling.

Ms. DeVos is a long-time financial supporter of the extreme Right, believes schools should teach Creationism, and has been a generous donor to anti-LGBT groups. She is a rich ideologue who has been described as “an enemy of public education.”

Michigan blogger Ed Brayton, who has observed her at close range for several years, is blunt; “Putting her in charge of the Department of Education is like making Al Capone the chief of police.”

This choice is a disaster for schoolchildren—and especially for low-income children.

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on November 29, 2016]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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