Courtesy of American Federation of Children
Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos may well be the first U.S. secretary of education to come to office without expressing a strong belief in the importance of traditional public schools as a core democratic institution, and without any detailed ideas on the record for improving them other than prodding them to compete with charter schools and private schools.

If approved by the U.S. Senate after hearings scheduled for next week, the multibillionaire DeVos would be the 11th secretary of education. Her single-minded focus on finding alternatives to public education – largely in the form of taxpayer-supported vouchers and other ways to underwrite tuition for private schools – is unmatched by any other previous occupant of the post.

A review of DeVos’ public statements has not surfaced one where she indicates that public schools can be reformed to better serve children, or any set of strategies covering central challenges such as classroom instruction, teaching methods, or testing and accountability to accomplish that. Most of her statements are about “failing schools” and giving children a way to escape them.

The one statement she has made recently regarding classroom instruction was to post on her website within hours of being selected by President-elect Donald Trump to be his secretary of education that she was opposed to the Common Core state standards — which she described as a “federalized boondoggle.”

DeVos did not attend public schools. Nor did her children. She founded the American Federation for Children, whose board she chaired until a month ago. The organization’s main goal is to promote greater “school choice,” especially for low-income children. That includes access to high-quality traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools.

Immediately after the November elections, she issued a statement as chairwoman of the organization saying that “there is an education revolution” underway in America. “More and more voters are rejecting the notion that the government should dictate where children should go to school and are rejecting the failed, one-size-fits-all education policies of the past,” she said.

The statement went on to say said that “school choice challenges the antiquated U.S. education system” that “has failed far too many children for far too long.” The federal government, it said, had a “small but important role to play” in education. It named  two initiatives. The first would be reauthorizing the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives taxpayer-funded scholarships of up to $12,679 annually to students in Washington D.C. to attend private schools. The other would be “to change the flow of federal money” to bolster what states are already doing to promote “school choice.”

“School choice” has been broadly defined as giving parents access to any range of schools, from traditional public schools to charters and private schools. But DeVos’ efforts have been heavily focused on private schools, and to a lesser extent charter schools. As noted on the American Federation for Children’s website, “school choice means allowing parents to select the best schools for their children – public or private. The American Federation for Children focuses its time and resources on supporting state-level efforts to provide low-income and middle class families with access to great schools through private school choice.”

Nowhere does she give an indication that she subscribes to a deeper view of education as a core democratic institution, along the lines of what Thomas Jefferson expressed in his letter to John Adams in 1813 that public schools would become “the keystone in the arch of our government.”

The secretary of education position is a relatively new invention. Until 1979, there was a U.S. commissioner of education, which was not a cabinet-level post. President Jimmy Carter appointed Shirley Hufstedler to be the first secretary of education.

A year later, Ronald Reagan ran on a platform to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Over the years, it has become a running theme of Republican education policy to call for shrinking or dismantling it altogether.

But even secretaries of education appointed by Republican presidents – including Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush – didn’t express the animus toward public schools that DeVos’ record seems to show. All previous secretaries were dedicated to improving traditional public schools.

Reagan, who vowed to shrink the department, appointed Terrel Bell, a former high school teacher who had dedicated his life to public education. Bell’s major and lasting contribution was to establish the National Commission on Excellence in Education, headed by David Gardner, who later became president of the University of California. In 1983, the commission issued its landmark A Nation at Risk report. It included an iconic sentence warning of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

The report did not suggest providing alternatives to parents outside the public schools. Nor did the report dismiss these schools as merely “government schools,” as President-elect Trump has. The Nation at Risk report called for an even larger education role for government, arguing that it was “essential – especially in a period of long-term decline in educational achievement – for government at all levels to affirm its responsibility for nurturing the Nation’s intellectual capital.”

Bell was succeeded by William Bennett, perhaps the best known of all secretaries of education. Bennett was also a harsh critic of public schools and promoted the idea of vouchers for private schools. But he was also a believer in public education and acknowledged that there were many good public schools that deserved support, as he described in his 1988 report titled American Education: Making It Work.

President George H.W. Bush took a leadership role in focusing attention on improving public education by convening the National Goals Panel at a historic meeting at Charlottesville, N.C., in 1989. Then Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas played a leading role in the summit, and the national education goals laid out at Charlottesville informed his education policies in his administration, spearheaded by his secretary of education, Richard Riley. Before coming to D.C., Riley had made public education a centerpiece of his decade-long governorship of South Carolina.

Rod Paige, President George W. Bush’s secretary of education, was a high-profile school superintendent in Houston and oversaw implementation of the No Child Left Behind law.  Notwithstanding the failure of the law to achieve its ambitious objectives, its declared intent was to improve all schools along with the academic performance of all children.  It did include a small “school choice” provision that allowed students in struggling public schools to attend a higher-performing school in their district. But only a tiny proportion of parents took advantage of this provision, which was never a major part of No Child Left Behind.

Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education until a year ago, came to Washington from a superintendency of the Chicago Public Schools, and was also a strong backer of charter schools. The Obama administration’s emphasis on testing and “accountability” triggered strong resistance from teachers unions and others. But the reforms were intended to improve public schools, even if  detractors disagreed with the rationale underlying them.

In contrast, an expansive 2013 interview with DeVos conducted by the Philanthropy Roundtable gives no hint of a belief in traditional public schools. She and her husband Dick DeVos have been major backers of public charter schools. Her husband started the West Michigan Aviation Academy. But in the interview she even expressed some doubts about charter schools as a solution, taking issue with philanthropists who believe they are the “be-all and end-all answer.” Her skepticism appeared to be based on the time and resources needed to establish charter schools. She implied that giving students access to private schools, even those “hanging on by a shoestring,” made more sense.

That’s because, she asserted bluntly, “traditional public schools are not succeeding … In fact, let’s be clear: in many cases, they are failing.”

At her confirmation hearings on January 11, DeVos will have a chance to explain the extent to which she is committed to public schools, and what can be done to improve them, or whether her primary concern will remain, as it has been for decades,  promoting alternatives to them.

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  1. Gary Ravani 11 months ago11 months ago

    “DeVos would set precedent as secretary of education without strong commitment to public schools.”

    The lead to this story deserves the “Understated Article Title of the Year Award.” And it’s only January.

  2. CarolineSF 11 months ago11 months ago

    On the far right, DeVos' milieu, there's a strong movement to abolish public education altogether. There's debate on that fringe about whether to eliminate all public funding for education or provide public funding but direct it all toward privately run operations. In the former camp (eliminate all public funding for education), there's debate about whether charters and vouchers are a legitimate step toward that or an unacceptable sellout. In my opinion, the choice of DeVos … Read More

    On the far right, DeVos’ milieu, there’s a strong movement to abolish public education altogether. There’s debate on that fringe about whether to eliminate all public funding for education or provide public funding but direct it all toward privately run operations. In the former camp (eliminate all public funding for education), there’s debate about whether charters and vouchers are a legitimate step toward that or an unacceptable sellout.

    In my opinion, the choice of DeVos brings that far-right fringe into a leadership position, and its views should be spotlighted. I don’t think the main-stream media is fully aware of how extreme the views on the far right are.

    Replies

    • Don 11 months ago11 months ago

      Can you provide some names of those on the far right who want to abolish public education as you claim. I mean, besides the entity known as Spectre.

  3. Jonathan Raymond 11 months ago11 months ago

    Really appreciate Eric's points. And let's be fair: Other than the fed's waiver for the California school districts (CORE) and the use of Title 1 dollars to support arts education, their initiatives typically lack boldness and they are terribly out of touch with the challenges and constraints school districts, particularly school superintendents deal with on a daily basis. One only has to look at the recent compliance mentality pushed on California over the state's pushback … Read More

    Really appreciate Eric’s points. And let’s be fair: Other than the fed’s waiver for the California school districts (CORE) and the use of Title 1 dollars to support arts education, their initiatives typically lack boldness and they are terribly out of touch with the challenges and constraints school districts, particularly school superintendents deal with on a daily basis. One only has to look at the recent compliance mentality pushed on California over the state’s pushback on administering out-of-date science tests. Let’s see what this new team brings.

  4. Meg Dastrup 11 months ago11 months ago

    Thank you for the thoughtful commentary comparing Ms. DeVos' views against those of her predecessors and the founding fathers. I'm withholding judgment for the moment. Small nit: What you refer to as the National Goals Panel took place in Virginia, not North Carolina. http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/negp/page1-5.htm "That event was the first National Education Summit, an historic meeting between President George Bush and the nation's governors, held in Charlottesville, Virginia in September 1989." Happy New Year to all of … Read More

    Thank you for the thoughtful commentary comparing Ms. DeVos’ views against those of her predecessors and the founding fathers. I’m withholding judgment for the moment.
    Small nit: What you refer to as the National Goals Panel took place in Virginia, not North Carolina.
    http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/negp/page1-5.htm
    “That event was the first National Education Summit, an historic meeting between President George Bush and the nation’s governors, held in Charlottesville, Virginia in September 1989.”
    Happy New Year to all of you at EdSource!

  5. Rhonda Hertwig 11 months ago11 months ago

    Hello, I am just another mother, parent, advocate, nurse - I pray DeVos sees what many have not apparently. Why with all the evidence base to back up trauma informed care and why it doesn't exist in all our schools is yet another big question I have for our country. Supposedly the leading country in the world and yet we have little honor for the teaching profession and the resources that need to go into our … Read More

    Hello,
    I am just another mother, parent, advocate, nurse – I pray DeVos sees what many have not apparently. Why with all the evidence base to back up trauma informed care and why it doesn’t exist in all our schools is yet another big question I have for our country. Supposedly the leading country in the world and yet we have little honor for the teaching profession and the resources that need to go into our Dept. of Education. It doesn’t do much good to concentrate on academics until we have a student who thrives – despite the mental anguish that surrounds so many of our youth. We need to wake up and recognize that PREVENTION is the key. Why does America keep spending money on “care after we get sick”? Lets work on PREVENTION. Lets move up stream and nip it in the bud. Lets join together and instill empathy back into the minds of our citizens. Lets not be bystanders and sit back and allow the ills to continue.

    Thank you,
    Rhonda Hertwig, RN, MSN, CPNP

  6. Eric Premack 11 months ago11 months ago

    'Tho it's been some years since I studied the early history of US public education, my fading recollection is that Jefferson ultimately advocated for an extreme version of "local control" and state support only for poor students (and only white males at that). DeVos' support of vouchers for low-income students is far closer to the Jeffersonian approach than support for the current, government-run, federal- and state-micromanaged, mega-districted approach than any of her predecessors. Louis' post … Read More

    ‘Tho it’s been some years since I studied the early history of US public education, my fading recollection is that Jefferson ultimately advocated for an extreme version of “local control” and state support only for poor students (and only white males at that). DeVos’ support of vouchers for low-income students is far closer to the Jeffersonian approach than support for the current, government-run, federal- and state-micromanaged, mega-districted approach than any of her predecessors.

    Louis’ post begs an interesting fundamental question: When we use the term “public” to describe “public education,” what do we mean? Do we mean “governmentally-operated?” Interestingly, when we refer to “public radio” or “public television,” we generally don’t mean “governmentally-operated” broadcasting, but rather we refer to broadcasters whose programming is somewhat higher brow than “commercial” television or radio. That is, we look to the quality and character of the broadcasting, not whether the government directly owns the broadcast license or operates the transmitter. Before we criticize DeVos for not supporting “public” schools, we should think a bit deeper about what the term “public” means in this context. Arguably, DeVos has a long and deep track record for supporting real “public” schools.

    While many of us have deep concerns over what a Trump Administration will bring, especially as it relates to immigration, international relations, and the economy, I’m personally losing little sleep over the prospect of less federal micro-management of K-12 education policy.

    Replies

    • Todd Maddison 11 months ago11 months ago

      Excellent points.

      Given that this post is a recap of all the administrations and secretaries that have accomplished literally no measurable improvement in education (and by most measures, a long slow decline), perhaps it’s time for someone with a different perspective?

    • Don Krause 11 months ago11 months ago

      To follow up on Eric's thoughtful comment, the notion that traditional "public" schools are what education establishment/conservatives classify as true public schools is disingenuous given the degree to which private teacher unions hold sway in local, state and federal policy. With greater local control it has become increasingly difficult for citizens to run for school board as local unions yield greater power than ever before. And there is the rub - under … Read More

      To follow up on Eric’s thoughtful comment, the notion that traditional “public” schools are what education establishment/conservatives classify as true public schools is disingenuous given the degree to which private teacher unions hold sway in local, state and federal policy. With greater local control it has become increasingly difficult for citizens to run for school board as local unions yield greater power than ever before. And there is the rub – under LCFF, with less dedicated funding, school districts are actually freer to spend to consolidate their bureaucracies behind local “interests.”
      Under this regime we have fewer public school trustees who are not beholden to powerful local education industry interests, those same interests that fund local candidates to do their bidding.
      LCFF has made true local control more in the pocket of vested interest than ever before. As such, students and their parents are less represented unless one is to believe that the LCAP has any impact on true stakeholder input. Thus, districts like San Francisco Unified can revamp curriculum without the time-honored and codified community input supposedly required by law (EC 60002). Hence, the only way forward in this new regime is to promote parental school choice.
      But a balance must be struck between giving charters leeway to innovate and holding them accountable to local agencies – a balance that has not yet been achieved. I think organizations’s like Mr. Premack’s would do well to encourage this innovation while discouraging the continuance of failed charters. It is at least in part the inability to close down failing traditional public schools that gives charters its impetus in the first place. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander and traditional public schools should be held to the same requirement to make good or get out. Choice is only as good as there are good choices.

  7. Bill Honig 11 months ago11 months ago

    Excellent article, Louis. For those who are upset about the nomination please call California’s two senators today to express your concerns and request that they oppose the nomination.