The Education of Betsy DeVos

The National Review published a glowing personal profile of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos this month. It would be hard to find a less critical, more fawning piece of “journalism” if you tried.

The obvious conflict of interest– her husband Dick DeVos is a trustee of the National Review Institute, which owns the National Review magazine– shows throughout.

I have no doubt that Betsy DeVos does care about kids and their education. I also know that she has a systematic belief that public education is wrong and that school is better done by religious organizations or private industry. This is based entirely on her very limited personal experience, her faith, and her ideological worldview that anything run by the government is bad and anything run for profit or Jesus is good. It has no basis in educational research and ignores over 30 years of history that says charter schools at best do about the same quality of job as public schools and at worst are outright fraudulent.

I have little interest in the “protesters are mean to Betsy” parts of this profile. She is a major political figure who wants to radically change one of the most sacred and successful American institutions– public education. What do you think a liberal Secretary of Defense would face if he/she wanted to basically disband the military? It would be a whole lot meaner than the suggestion that they have financial interests in the venture…

Instead, I’d like to press on some of the dubious “points” DeVos raises in this puff piece that highlights how ignorant and unqualified she is to do this job (and how vacuous her theory of education is).

Among her points, questions, and contentions are these: “Why assign kids to schools based on their addresses?” “Why group kids by age?” “Why force all students to learn at the same speed?” “Why measure education by hours and days?”

Why assign kids to schools based on their addresses? Because many families do not have the means to transport their children outside of the communities they live in. Also, it makes it nearly impossible for those same parents to take any sort of active role in their children’s schools, attend extra-curricular activities, or take advantage of the other community-oriented support and activities the schools provide. This is about as stupid as asking why we assign representatives to a geographic district or voters to a polling place based on address.

Why group kids by age? Because there are social considerations beyond formal knowledge transmission. What sort of power dynamics would exist in a classroom with some gifted 10 year-olds, some average 13 and 14 year-olds, and a handful of learning challenged 17-year-olds? How many parents are signing up to send their 10-year-old into that environment?

Why force all students to learn at the same speed? Why measure education by hours and days? Finally a good question. Short answer: we don’t. We just ask for basic achievement levels before considering someone a graduate of their grade or school. The Jeffersonian ideal of going to school at your own pace and leaving when you feel that you have the knowledge and skills to take on the next challenge in work or school is wonderful. It also does not work in a society of credentials. Trying to hire people on the basis of undocumented skills would be laborious. As would college admissions. Not to mention how this runs against the 1990s conservative education reform crusade in accountability. Remember how badly they wanted “proof” that their tax dollars were not being squandered in public education and then tried to tie school finances and teacher promotion to scores on standardized tests? How do you want schools to square the circle of ALL 11th GRADERS MUST SCORE X with not asking students to learn at the same speed?

People seem very resistant to school choice. It must be a result of the harsh and dishonest campaign against it — also of people’s fundamental conservatism. School choice is a sharp departure from the way things have always been done. I once discussed this with Milton Friedman (no less). He was keenly disappointed in the public’s resistance to, or reluctance about, school choice.

DeVos, for her part, says that resistance or reluctance is melting. Attitudes are shifting. She cites a poll that says that 54 percent of people favor school choice — universal school choice, i.e., choice for all. (The poll comes from Education Next.) This number is way up from previous findings. “So, we’re changing the conversation,” says DeVos. The conversation is flowing her way (and mine). The late Friedman would be pleased.

Education Next is a propaganda outlet for the corporate education reform movement. They are an off-shoot of the Hoover Institute masquerading as an education journal. There is no peer-review. They follow no professional standards. They are an advocacy group. And even they can only gin up 54% support for their school choice position. Does “Do We Have to Be as Poor as Our Neighbor?” sound like sober, academic analysis to you?

This same study has been used widely in the last couple of months, from the Atlantic to the National Review. It is a sampling of 4600 Americans disproportionately aimed at people with kids in poor communities. This is playing with loaded dice. Who is surprised that a small majority of parents with kids in poor school districts, many of which also suffer from crime that makes going to and being in the school dangerous, would like other options?

Since neither the author or DeVos decide to engage the critics of school choice here, let me do so. No one opposes the right of parents to choose schools other than the public community school their kids are assigned to. People oppose taking tax dollars out of those locally supported public schools and transferring them to private institutions that are unaccountable to the state and community, have little to no oversight, and are free to simply pocket much of the money. Here in Ohio we have a shorthand for it: ECOT.

ECOT was widely promoted as a cutting-edge charter school that could provide at-home learning solutions using emerging digital technology. In the 2016-2017 school year ECOT collected 104 million tax dollars to educate 12000 Ohio students. What a success! Only it turns out ECOT was massively inflating the number of students that it was educating, had no standards for activity or learning, and was funnelling tax-dollars through other businesses owned by the same controlling interests as the schools (including spending nearly $50k on negative ads at the Ohio Department of Education while the schools was under audit by the state for stealing tax dollars). ECOT was ordered to repay the state $19 million dollars. Instead, it simply shuttered its doors, leaving the students who depended on it for their education and the people working there with nothing. The history of charter schools across the nation is rife with this sort of corruption. Betsy DeVos should know this.

Beyond the corruption of many charter schools, pulling tax-dollars out of public schools cause major problems for those public schools. Again, DeVos should know this as she was instrumental in causing a public education crisis in the state of Michigan. Following 20 years of data in the schools in Michigan, researchers found that schools per-pupil funding and enrollment in places where charters were prevalent created financial ruin for the schools of those communities. Over the last decade, these public schools lost an inflation-adjusted 46% of their revenue over the last decade. Because students take their tax dollars with them to smaller, cheaper to run schools with less experienced teachers, fewer requirements (like special education classes or providing enough space and teachers to handle educating every single student in the district, for example) it cripples the existing public school and creates a death spiral of emergency budget cuts (cut programs, cut salaries, cut staff) that lead to poorer educational outcomes which lead to more students leaving the schools.

Think of it this way– public schools are to charter schools what the US Postal Service is to UPS/FedEx. Without the infrastructure of public education, which guarantees every child an education, the very idea of charter schools becomes impossible. Charter schools, the real ones and not the ones simply committing fraud, are designed to be focused, experimental educational laboratories. They do not promise to educate everyone. They promise to offer a different style to the few students who get in, be it through a lottery or some admissions process. They often rely on public schools to handle “problem” students, students with learning disabilities, students with certain physical disabilities, students who lack parental guidance or support, and a host of other “abnormal” conditions. And that is when they actually exist in your area. Charter school options are few and far between in many communities. If there is no money to be made or no local benefactors with a commitment to a particular philosophy or mission there is no charter school.

People oppose “school choice” because it takes risks with their children. Risks they cannot afford to take.

DeVos tells me something I didn’t know, or have never focused on: The Education Department, weirdly enough, is a bank. A very, very big bank. “We have a $1.5 trillion student-loan portfolio,” she says, “and this department represents one of the biggest banks in the world, which makes no sense. It should not be constructed this way, so this is a big issue for me, to tackle from a variety of angles.” She wants the student-loan experience to be much easier for students, and “ultimately a much better deal for taxpayers.”

Only rich people do not know that the Department of Education finances student loans. Nothing about the Federal Student Loan process is difficult for students. And it very much does make sense. They started offering them in the 1950s, first as a response to the Sputnik crisis and later to create more opportunity for upward social and economic mobility to working and middle-class Americans. These loans ignore things like credit scores or financial hardships and offer people an avenue to professional and economic success. They are the American people betting on their kids. There is a cap set on borrowing, that protects both the student and the government (as well as putting a basic cap on how much schools can really push costs up to). They require schools to be credentialed. They require students to actually take classes and make appropriate progress. And they have been tremendously effective.

Her canard about simplifying it for students is absurd. All it requires is basic paperwork that you would have to fill out to get a credit card and proof that you are registered for the right amount of credit hours. Nor does shifting student loans to the private sector save money for tax-payers– these loans are non-dischargeable and help non-wealthy students attend college, adding scores of educated workers to the workforce. This has real value on its own and the loans themselves literally make the government money. They have returns similar to a home mortgage.

Note, that private lenders already offer loans for higher education. If they are so superior why would anyone take the Federal option? Because Federal loans are much cheaper, subject to lending oversight, non-discriminatory, and tied to a variety of programs that forgive parts of loans for performing approved public services (like going into education or teaching in low-income areas). The truth is, private student loans cannot compete with the Federal loans because the profit margins are smaller than other ways they could have their money tied up (car loans, mortgages, credit cards, personal loans, etc). None of this is bad for students or taxpayers.

So why does DeVos want to move these to the private sector? Maybe it is because she and her supporters will make money off it? Probably. Perhaps it is to discourage working and middle-class students from pursuing higher education. This fits with the larger “college isn’t for everyone, in fact college is probably bad” narrative conservatives have been pushing. Here is something for you to consider: why do few of these advocates ever take such a route themselves? Or put their children into these kinds of schools? College for me but not for thee!

What do critics of student loans argue? That they make college more expensive. Right. Oddly, few of these same critics claim that credit cards make consumer goods more expensive or that mortgages make houses more expensive. Loans simply make college accessible. Rising costs more closely track with declining public spending, technology adaptation (gee, I wonder if campuses with WiFi, computer labs, and state of the art scientific research centers are more expensive to run than the colleges of the 1950s…), and administrative oversight (the proliferation of things the public, on both sides, demands schools be “accountable” for). They also complain that loan rates are not tied to risk factors like major. In laymen’s terms, they want to make it more costly (and thus risky) for working and middle-class students to major in anything but “safe” occupational subjects like healthcare or business and not shoot for things like becoming a history professor or some emerging discipline that might not currently have a job market, like say computer science decades ago. Not only will this weed out competition for the children of the wealthy, but it will also deeply skew research (changes in social science and history research, for example, began to look much more closely at the lives of normal Americans when the disciplines ceased to be entirely populated by economic and social elites).

What will the impact be on Americans if DeVos gets her way on privatizing higher education lending? It will make college even more expensive for working and middle-class students, loading them up with higher interest rates run by companies that have no oversight to prevent them from lending money to people who are not enrolled in legitimate schools or whose loan loads are so high as to be practically unpayable.

Tell you what, Betsy. We can privatize student loans if you make them dischargeable in bankruptcy. Deal?

The Betsy DeVos approach to educational policy is the fusing of 30 years worth of conservative attacks on expanding access to education in America. First, their accountability movement was utterly discredited, to the point that conservatives are now the loudest opponents of standardizations like the Common Core, but not before saddling public schools with all sorts of onerous social and educational standards to meet. Then their experiment in charter schools and “school choice” failed, through ECOT style fraud and a lack of sustained educational achievement (damn standards!). They effectively defunded public higher education, causing the same sort of funding panics at colleges that their charter schools caused in the K-12 system. Their solution to this is to strip working Americans of their ability to pay for higher education.

This should only appeal to the most selfish, wealthiest Americans. It offers nothing to the working, middle, or upper-class American families who make under 250k a year. The American public education system has been a massive success. The graduates of these programs had a dream of racial equality, walked on the moon, declared it Morning in America, changed what we thought when we heard the word Apple, and populate almost every level of our sports and entertainment complex. Publicly educated Americans won two world wars and have fought a global war on terror for nearly 20 years now. Publicly educated Americans pave your roads, maintain your gas lines, refine your oil, monitor your electricity generation, grow your food, and build your home. Publicly educated Americans are among the finest scholars, medical doctors, entrepreneurs, politicians, soldiers, and artists in the world. These publicly educated Americans are why elites the world over send their kids to our colleges. Public education is one of the things that makes America great. Betsy DeVos and conservative education reformers want to destroy that and cannot understand why people dislike her. Maybe if Betsy had spent one second of her own educational experience learning in a public school rather than the insular bubble of her private conservative Christian education she’d be capable of understanding this.


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