The tapping of Betsy Devos, a conservative school choice activist and longtime member of an elite donor class of the Republican party, as the cabinet education secretary by President-elect Donald Trump has caused uncertainty in the world of public education; the longtime republican donor will now have a nationwide stage to implement her initiatives for using tax-dollar money on private school education.
DeVos, revered by fellow conservative activists for her stance against what they see as “federal intrusion” on local school systems, has spent around 30 years pushing to use tax-dollar money to pay for the attendance of private and religious schools in the form of vouchers, and has advocated for diminishing the power of teacher unions. Her appointment shows that Trump intends on following through with his campaign promise of using $20 billion of federal funds to encourage states to make private and charter schools a choice for lower-income students.
“I am honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again,” DeVos tweeted Wednesday. “The status quo in ed is not acceptable.”
Like many other education activists, DeVos is a strong backer of school choice, or the idea that students of all walks of life shouldn’t be denied entrance to the school of their choice because of their economic situation or ZIP code. However, DeVos has focused her efforts entirely on private schools, while dismissing the public school system that Trump has described as “failing government schools.”
Riverside Unified School District Board of Education President Tom Hunt stressed that although charter schools can be beneficial, Trump and Devos need to keep in mind that public schools mustn’t be forgotten and replaced by charter schools.
“I would hope that [Devos] and [Trump] would look for good public school systems and reward them. Some people think that charters are the end-all but they aren’t. There are some fine ones in Riverside, both filling a niche we weren’t filling. They have challenged us,” Hunt said.
However, if this proposed school voucher plan is put into place, it will be taking huge amounts of money from school districts and putting it into the hands of low-income families so their children may attend for-profit, private, virtual and religious schools with ease.
From the outset, school-choice doesn’t sound like a horrible problem; state legislatures here in California have pushed for school choice on the public school level, although with some problems. Ideally though, school choice is a good thing; it gives students a chance to actually have a say in where they get their education.
However, the first problem with this DeVos’ school choice plan is her obvious disdain towards oversight and regulation in the charter school legislation that she has backed.
During her backing of the Michigan Charter School Law, she poured $1.45 million into a legislative campaign that stopped oversight in Detroit. 80 percent of these charter schools in Michigan are run by private companies and state authorities have done little to ensure that the schools are effectively serving students.
Additionally, DeVos’ would be taking away huge amounts of money from the very students that she claims to want to help. The voucher program would redirect billions of dollars of funding away from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which exclusively serves the largest portions of poor children in the United States. This money would not only be now used for public charter schools but for private, religious and even for-profit virtual schools.
This would potentially hurt poor students, as a large Stanford study showed that children learn significantly less at virtual-charter schools than they do at a regular public school.
DeVos’ activism and donations towards supporting legislators that align with her views has changed much of the educational landscape in the states she has influence over. As the national secretary of education, she would have the potential to implement these initiatives nationwide. This doesn’t spell well for the future of American education, as Michigan, Devos’ main battleground for school choice, has fallen in rank on national reading and math tests since its embrace of charter schools. In fact, the majority of charter schools score below the national average.
A federal review also found that “an unreasonably high percentage of charter schools are on the list of Michigan’s lowest-performing schools.” The New York Times found that the number of charter schools on that list had doubled since 2010 due to a law DeVos backed that allowed failing charter schools to expand and replicate.
The American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued a statement saying that the appointment of Devos “makes it loud and clear that [Trump’s] education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.”
However, DeVos, who has relied on her mass coffers of money to back her initiatives for school choice in Michigan, will find it difficult to follow through with her goals, as she will have to focus on a much wider range of responsibilities, from working towards drug-free schools to deliberating college aid matters. But the Trump administration and the Republican party as a whole, seems very adamant about pursuing this plan.
Douglas Harris, an economist at Tulane University and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, believes that the Trump administration will follow through with the school voucher plan.
“Trump is talking about it and clearly thinks it’s a good idea. Republicans love this. Most policy is going to be driven by Congress, probably even more so under Trump than any previous administration. This is what they want to do. The stars are aligned,” he said.