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Does my headline about Trump’s pick to be the next education secretary sound exaggerated, even hyperbolic? If so you’re not paying attention, a cardinal sin in the Age of Trump. For starters, here’s a December 12, New York Times headline "Education nominee bent Detroit to her will on charter schools.” Betsy DeVos is a true believer in a totally free-market approach to education reform.

Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos to Public Education: Drop Dead—John C. Fager

And here’s a quote from the article about how DeVos would apply a free-market approach to the Detroit Public Schools, a system that she has had great impact on.

“Detroit Public Schools, she argued, should simply be shut down and the system turned over to charters, or the tax dollars given to parents in the form of vouchers to attend private schools.”

When we talk about Betsy DeVos, we’re not talking about the non-educator corporate reformers that Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama appointed. Rod Paige and Arne Duncan did their share of damage to children, teachers, and education. But as misguided as they were at least they were committed to improving public education. DeVos is even more committed to public education, to its destruction.

The experimental weapons being used in the ongoing national education war during the last 20 years were radical but seem almost tame compared to what DeVos proposes to do.

The experimental weapons being used in the ongoing national education war during the last 20 years were radical but seem almost tame compared to what DeVos proposes to do. The ineffective and damaging corporate reform weapons still in place include the Common Core-aligned high stakes standardized testing, Common Core State Standards, charter schools, zero-tolerance discipline, and the value added method (VAM) for evaluating teachers and principals.

These seem almost quaint (they’re not) like a M16 from the Vietnam War. But now, unless the United States Senate musters some courage and rejects her, we will have a billionaire ideologue as the United States Secretary of Education who wants to go nuclear on the public schools.

It’s in Michigan, where DeVos and her extended family money has been the most powerful force in education for the last 20 years, where we can learn what may be in store for the rest of the country. And we can learn important lessons because the Detroit Free Press and The New York Times have done extensive and deep reporting about Betsy DeVos and her extended billionaire family. Excellent journalism is another necessary survival tool for the next four years.

The Michigan charter school law, originally passed in 1993, was woefully short on accountability requirements. In 2001 the DeVos family spent $5.8 million to back an unsuccessful effort to amend the Michigan constitution to allow the use of education vouchers even though they have failed to improve student performance. In the same year Betsy DeVos founded the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) to support charter schools.

And in 2011 the DeVoses and the Great Lakes Education Project pushed the legislature to “lift cap on the number of charter schools”. They are true believers in a totally free-market and powerful enough to convince the legislature not only to eliminate the cap but also to remove the part of the law that would prohibit failing schools from expanding or replicating.

Last year the Detroit Free Press reviewed two decades of charter school records and in August printed a special report written by Jennifer Dixon, “Michigan spends $1B on charter schools but fails to hold them accountable.” The first paragraph stated, “state laws regulating charters are among the nation’s weakest, and the state demands little accountability in how taxpayer dollars are spent and how well children are educated.

The headings in the report speak volumes about the failure of the program. They range from“Often no consequences for poor performance,” “State law sets no qualifications for charter applicants,” “No guidelines for when a charter should be revoked,” “Taxpayer money can be hidden from public view,” “Mixed results academically, less spending in the classroom,” and “Loopholes in Michigan law allow insider deals and nepotism,”

Choice in a market sounds attractive: people buy goods or services from businesses that are of high quality and desert those of low quality. Charters and vouchers are part of the choice movement where families will theoretically seek out the best schools. But often choice means picking among bad schools and parents often lack necessary information. And the national expert says that choice and totally free-markets don’t work in schools (see below).

In New York State and others there are indications that the choice is being exercised by the schools not the parents. Proponents of charter schools says that the selection of students is done by a blind lottery. But the parents who search out and participate in a lottery usually are better educated and their children are easier to educate. And if a low performing student gets accepted some charter schools use their behavior and discipline codes to pressure such students to transfer to a public school that must take all students.

A form of choice did take place in the charter universe in Detroit; almost all of the respected national charter chains refused to open schools in Detroit because of the chaos. The New York Times also reported that even the Walton Foundation, that pledged to invest $1billion in charter schools over the next five years, withdrew from Detroit. The free-market has spoken; it has forcefully condemned the charter morass in Detroit that DeVos played such a prominent role in creating.

And more importantly if DeVos truly wanted to know what was going wrong in Detroit she could have engaged Margaret Raymond director of Stanford University’s highly respected CREDO (Center for Research of Educational Outcomes) the gold standard for evaluating charter schools, to Detroit. But DeVos would not like what she would have heard.

In December 2014 Raymond was addressing the Cleveland City Club across Lake Erie from Michigan. She was there to report on conditions in Ohio charter schools, then known as the “Wild,Wild West of charter schools” according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

I watched a video of the webcast and Raymond stressed the need for holding charter schools and their authorizers accountable. She said, “states with better authorizer controls tend to have better charter schools.” But DeVos believes in a pure free-market with hardly any state regulations.

More importantly Raymond then surprised the audience. After saying that she had not only studied markets most of her professional life and considered herself, “a market gal,” she then said that she had come to the conclusion that "a totally free market is not appropriate for schools” Again the expert in the nation on charter schools contradicts the free-market ideology of DeVos.

Raymond went on, “It’s the only industry/sector where the market doesn’t work.” And she explained why, “Parents can’t be agents of quality assurance.” There is a need for better information to be available to parents as they pick schools. And, as she expressed earlier, more government accountability measures.

Back in Michigan, the land of free-market charter schools where 80% are for-profit, the highest percentage in the country, the problems had metastasized. The 2015 special report by the Detroit Free Press also quoted a former state schools superintendent Tom Watkins…“people are making a boatload of money” and the kids aren’t getting educated.” Ah, the free-market in K-12 public education, it’s a con artist’s dream right up there with for-profit higher education, private prisons, etc. A 2016 article questioned whether charter schools could become the new subprime mortgage crisis.

Last year, responding to the failure of many charter schools, a coalition of Detroit residents and business, union, and parent leaders, including the sons of two governors, came together with the Republican Governor Rick Snyder and the Democratic mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan to fashion a reform plan.

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A bill that would place charter schools under the same authority as public schools in the city, for quality control, and attention to population need for schools and balance was passed by the state senate. But then the DeVos family’s money machine came into play.

According to a September opinion column written by Stephen Henderson the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, the DeVos family, “has showered Michigan Republican candidates and organizations” with…$1.45 million in June and July alone –over a seven-week period, an average of $25,000 per day.” The reform legislation didn’t pass the Michigan House of Representatives and “that preserved the free-for-all charter environment that has locked Detroit in an educational morass for two decades.”

Henderson concluded on a prescient note. “The polite term for this kind of reflexive giving is transactional politics; it is the way things work not just in Lansing but in Washington, and in political circles in all 50 states.”

But if you think that DeVos had any misgivings you would be wrong. Any doubts about being the biggest player in the Lansing swamp and joining the nation’s capital apparently don’t exist. According to a November 23 article in The New Yorker ”DeVos has been a major opponent of limits on campaign finance” and has made substantial contributions to overturn them.

DeVos wrote the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that she would no longer feel defensive about her huge spending on candidates, her support of pay-to-play in government, and “the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point.” She continued,

“We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”

Those words, “we expect a return on our investment,” could be a motto for swamp dwellers everywhere. And it raises the question of what kind of government does DeVos believe in? Does she favor democracy or plutocracy, a government or state in which the wealthy class rules?

But it is Betsy DeVos’ apparent disdain for the children "Education Nominee Bent Detroit to Her Will on Charter Schools” that is so striking. (DeVos attended a Christian academy as did her children). For 20 years she and her extended family have spent millions of dollars to shape the school systems in Detroit and Michigan yet she seldom visited. Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation that works with Detroit children and was head of the commission that helped shape the reform legislation last spring, told Kate Zernike of The New York Times about DeVos’ lack of involvement.

“If she was showing herself present in places and learning from practitioners, that’s a fine combination, Ms. Allen said. “But Betsy never showed up in Detroit. She was very eager to impose experimentations on students that she has not spent time with and children that she does not have consequences for.”

DeVos, with her family fortune and her ideological commitment to a free-market with its vouchers, religious schools, and charter schools, matches Trump’s belief in free-markets and vouchers. Therefore you would think that she is likely to be confirmed.

But DeVos has a serious problem; she is so divorced from the mainstream that she alienates not only progressives and moderates but because of her past support of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), she is also in trouble with some, perhaps many, conservatives. She now tries to deny her support for CCSS but the record is substantial.

One Michigan organization that "opposes the Common Core and wants to stop DeVos" from becoming U.S. secretary of education is Stop Common Core in Michigan. The organization has more than one issue but it is DeVos’ past support of the Common Core that mobilized it against her candidacy.

In its Nov. 28 blog Stop CC in MI reported that DeVos’ organization GLEP has opposed the repeal of the CCSS and has a document titled, “The Conservative Case for Common Core.” Members also quoted a former state representative, Tom McMillin, who told them that DeVos had told him that she supported the Common Core.

But their problems with DeVos are broader. They complain about the testing and tracking of their children from cradle-to-career. They also reject DeVos because:

“Local and parent control do not exist in DeVos’ education reform model. Data and government funding drive the decision. In a nutshell, school choice is centralized control to meet the demands of the state and regional business not the dreams of the child.”

There is also the nationally disseminated blog Truth in American Education most often written and edited by Shane Vander Hart a conservative Christian from Iowa. The organization is divided about whether to support or oppose DeVos. “Vander Hart, after expressing some serious doubts, gave her the benefit of the doubt”

On the other side, Frank Cannon president of the American Principles Project, a conservative and libertarian organization according to Wikipedia opposes her confirmation. He ”accuses her of being a Jeb-like pick.”

In the Nov. 23 post Vander Hart questioned DeVos’ sudden opposition to CCSS. He noted that she said she supported “high standards” and he wanted to ask if she considered CCSS high standards. He also wanted to know if she supported federally mandated testing, parents’ rights to opt their students out, and where she stood on data collection of students’ private information.

I would like to suggest to Vander Hart that he pressure his senators, as all of us should be doing, to get answers to these questions and then make a decision based on the information.

The moment of truth will arrive on Wednesday when the DeVos hearing will be held. A good person to summarize who Betsy DeVos is is Stephen Henderson, the Detroit Free Press editorial page editor. He summed up his thoughts about DeVos being U.S. secretary of education in a December 4 opinion column. Under the heading “Unqualified” he wrote, “DeVos isn’t an educator, or an education leader. She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance. In fact, she has no relevant credentials or experience.”

He continued, "She is, in essence, a lobbyist" – someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them.”

So the big question for the United States Senate and for all Americans is: how much damage is this non-educator lobbyist going to do to the American system of public education? She described American public education in Aug. 2015, according to the Washington Post, as “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. ”It’s a monopoly, a dead-end.”


John C. Fager
Badass Teachers Association