The rise of Betsy DeVos opened up some schisms in the education reformster world, including, notably, voucher fans versus charter fans. Charter fans have been distrustful, even openly resistant to DeVos and whatever agenda she is drifting toward. Charter schools and voucher schools are natural competitors, with vouchers having a distinct edge with the private religious school market. But I think it may be more important that they compete in different ways.
To grossly oversimplify, the charter model is to attach itself to the public school system, coopting the public system’s financial systems but redirecting public monies to private schools. The voucher model is to keep the public funding from ever entering the public system at all. Charters want to slip the money out of the bank, but vouchers want to grab the armored cars delivering it. Charters flirt with the lottery winner so he’ll buy them a nice dinner, and vouchers mug him before he ever gets to the restaurant. Charters fake their family ties so they can wrangle an invite to Thanksgiving
So it represents a significant shift that DeVos has delivered a speech loaded with a giant olive branch to charter supporters.
DeVos was speaking to the National Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools. We’ll be looking at the official copy of her prepared remarks. She opens with a nice clear warm hug:
It’s great to be here with so many pioneers and champions who are fighting to give our nation’s families more quality options in their children’s education.
And then, in the guise of telling her own story, she gets straight to the point:
Defenders of the status quo like to paint me as a “voucher-only proponent”, but the truth is I’ve long-supported public charter schools as a quality option for students. …Whatever your own journey looks like, we’re here because we came to the same conclusion that, as a nation, we are simply not doing a good enough job educating our kids.
“Defenders of the status quo” is reformster boilerplate, appropriate for DeVos, who like many others is determined to tear schools away from a model that hasn’t actually existed for decades. But the DeVos doctrine is clear– public school sucks, and parents should decide where the money goes.
Not that she has anything against “great teachers,” who she also paints as victims of the old system (and asks those in the audience to stand and be recognized).
But she has two cautionary tales to tell, about the inadequacy of “assigned” schools. “Assigned” seems poised to replace “government” as the critical adjective favored by reformsters. It’s an effective way of conveying that public education is an indignity inflicted on children, and not a way for communities to work together to educate their children.
But DeVos must still rail against the educational system of 1962:
How can we be ok with an education structure that is so inflexible and so unaccommodating? Education is foundational to everything else in life, yet the process of acquiring it is based on a family’s income or neighborhood.
This conflates two issues. The first is the notion that the educational structure is inflexible and unaccommodating. Not as true as she thinks it is, but if it is, why not demand a system that is flexible and accommodating rather than demand a choice system that provides a range of schools that are inflexible and unaccommodating in many different ways? And second, if we feel that school funding is too closely tied to neighborhood income, then why not cut those ties? Why not demand a system that fully funds each school?
But DeVos is here to praise charters, not to bury them. After a quick recap of charter history in which she suggests that charters were spearheaded by parents looking for choices and not Freedman-following free marketeers looking for access to that sweet sweet public money.
She wants us to know that “charter schools are here to stay” but that they aren’t exactly the right fit for every child. “For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter public [sic] school works for them.” Just so her audience knows that while she loves charters, voucher schools are still part of her picture.
Then she says the one smart thing in the whole speech:
Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education. Let’s be honest: there’s no such thing as a cure-all in education.
This is a clear rejection of another old reformster theory of action– find a great school with great teachers and just scale it up for everyone everywhere. It has always been a dumb idea, and I’ll give DeVos a gold star for recognizing that. Then I will take five stars away for this next piece:
I suggest we focus less on what word comes before “school”—whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private or any approach yet to be developed—and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve. We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.
This is the subtle but hugely important heart of the DeVos doctrine– the dismissal and destruction of institutions. It is what makes her a perfect fit for the Trump administration. Institutions can be hidebound, stiff and rut-bound, but they also serve as advocates for people who are not rich and powerful. If a public education system is broken down and replaced with a disconnected unregulated mass of education-flavored businesses, then parents and communities will have no real power to fight the system. If democratically-elected school boards are replaced by private corporate boards answerable to nobody, taxpayers and community members have no voice in education at all. The death of institutions means the ascension of the rich and powerful. Without institutions, might makes right.
DeVos can say that we are focused on individual students, but if those students are lied to by profiteers, abused and cast aside by powerful private interests, and given only the choices that the powerful want to offer them, what does that focus mean? It means that profiteers have managed to base their system on the weakest, most vulnerable elements of the educational system.
I don’t know how DeVos arrived at this doctrine– I can guess, but I would only be guessing. Perhaps, having never held a job outside the family business, and having been fabulously wealthy her whole life, she simply finds the idea of being accountable foreign and disturbing, like landing in a country where the natives eat dog. Perhaps her conservative religious faith tells her that God doles out power and wealth to those who deserve it, and to thwart those so chosen is to interfere with the will of God Himself. Maybe she believes that government is an unnecessary evil, and she dreams of a country in which the church (the correct church) holds dominion over society (and outsiders to that faith have no voice).
Or maybe she’s just tired of spending money on Those People. Or maybe her understanding of the purposes and processes of education are just narrow, shallow, and ignorant. That would explain trotting out, yet again, the idea that we spend a lot of money on education but don’t have the best PISA scores in the world.
DeVos holds up Florida as an example of robust choice and its awesome results. Including Pitbull’s school. Florida, land charter scam artists and blatantly racist school policy and slavish devotion to the Big Standardized Test and public schools deliberately gutted in order to make choice look good. Florida is the DeVosian model. It may not do much for actual education, but at least people are free to make money.
The final chorus of this hymn to privatization is to declare that “education is not a zero-sum game.” But of course as currently conceived, it is exactly that. Among the issues that DeVos doesn’t address is the costliness of running multiple parallel school systems with the same (often inadequate) funds you previously used to run a single system. As long as every taxpayer dollar spent to send a student to a private charter or voucher school is a dollar taken away from the public system, then a zero-sum game is exactly what we have.
And it’s what we’re meant to have. DeVos believes that competition creates excellence, and competition only creates excellence by sorting the players into winners and losers. Competition is either a zero-sum game or a track meet where everyone gets a gold medal. DeVos and other free market fans absolutely believe that this must be a zero-sum game. But perhaps what DeVos means here is, “There’s enough booty to go around for both vouchers and charters.”
The DeVos Doctrine presented here includes several of her emerging greatest hits, such as the idea that parents choosing a school is a pure exercise of democracy. It is not. There is nothing democratic about requiring the taxpaying public to foot the bill for your personal private choice.
There is the DeVosian aversion to accountability. She responded to Rick Hess’s call not to become “the man” with bureaucratic barriers to “innovation.” It is a fair point that magical paperwork doesn’t necessarily do any good, but avoiding bureaucracy is an approach that depends on context, and when the context is a Secretary of Education who has been unable to imagine any circumstances under which the government would step in and tell a school, “That is not right. Stop it now!”– well, excessive oversight certainly hasn’t looked like a major threat in this administration.
There’s a salute to the entrepreneurial spirit. There’s an assurance that the Trump budget mayhave its problems, but there’s a huge expansion for charter school funding and an additional billion for school choice– in other words, plenty of money for everyone. Though how this is different from the Obama/Duncan attempt to influence state education policy with big stacks of bribes money–n well, I don’t see how this is different, exactly.
It wouldn’t be a DeVos speech without a bad analogy. Previous failures have included Uber and cell phones. What have we got this time?
It’s time to put down the permanent marker and straight edge, and instead pick up your brush and palette and paint. Paint in bright, bold colors and continue to add to the colorful collage that was started twenty-six years ago.
So public education is a stale straight line, but charter and voucher schools are pretty and free. You know– like No Excuses schools, where students must keep their hands folded and speak only when given permission.
And at the core of the DeVos Doctrine, the contradiction.
DeVos argues for opportunities for all students, but the choice system she favors provides only the opportunities that charter school operators offer, schools with no local control, no mechanism for adequate funding, and most of all, no protections for the students she declares to be at the center of educational issues. She calls for charter operators to stand up “for Angie… for Denisha… for Dan… for Sandy.” But nowhere has she addressed what happens if Angie is rejected or abused by a school that doesn’t want students of her race, or what will happen to Dan if he has special needs that the choice school doesn’t care to meet, or what will happen to Sandy if Sandy’s school believes that gay students must be straightened out, or to a Muslim student whose only choices are private schools that demand allegiance to Jesus Christ. Nowhere does she address what will happen to students who, rejected, must return to a public system that has been gutted so that charter and voucher schools can thrive.
All students can have choice in DeVos’s world– but only the choices that our Betters believe should be offer. And those choices will be stripped of democratic control, free from any accountability, and offered at great cost to a foundational democratic institution in our country.
As has been the case with DeVos (as was true with Arne Duncan before her), I don’t really know if she’s a cynical huckster or if she simply doesn’t know enough to understand hat she’s really proposing. Maybe she means well. But if nothing else, she seems to lack the interest in reflecting on how her various policies might really play out in the field (again, like Duncan).
But those were not the main issues on the table. DeVos is here to deliver a simple message– there is room enough, money enough for charter and voucher advocates to sit at the tableside by side, a big beautiful banquet table where all manner of privatizers can gather together to carve up public education.