Betsy DeVos and the War on Public Education

On Tuesday, February 7th, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education billionaire Betsy DeVos was approved by the Senate.  Despite intense protest and defection of two Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, Vice President Pence, as President of the Senate, cast the tie-breaking vote.  This is the first time in American History a vice president had to vote to confirm a presidential cabinet pick.  This unprecedented event demonstrates the unpopularity of Devos and displays Trump’s antipathy for public education.

Betsy Devos, a wealthy Republican fund-raiser and philanthropist is a major supporter of school vouchers, private schools, charter schools, homeschooling, and “digital learning”, but has absolutely no experience with public education. Holding the highest education position where she will be responsible for running a 4,400-employee organization with a $68 billion budget will be her first job in the field. Devos never attended public school, did not send her kids to public school, never worked in education and does not have any academic background in education.  She will now be in charge of nearly 100,000 public school across the country and over 50 million children.

During my 12 years as a teacher, I have experienced first hand the failed initiatives that have attempted to “reform” education.  These include No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and Common Core. Though well intentioned, these strategies have frustrated, demoralized and driven away many teachers. Nevertheless, the biggest threat to the sustainability of public education is the privately-run charter schools that Ms. Devos has spent her fortune supporting.  

Charter schools began in 1990 in Minnesota and were originally conceived as teacher-run schools. Charters operated outside the reach of the administrative bureaucracy and school boards and served students that traditional schools weren’t able to properly educate such as dropouts and students with low motivation.

But within a few years, many early supporters grew concerned that charter schools were opening the door to corporations taking over and administering public funds to make a profit.  Running schools “like a business” is supposed to create more efficiency. However, this takes money away from public schools, destabilizes them, and creates more income for management.  For example, two charter schools in New York State – Success Academy run by Eva Moskowitz and The Harlem Children’s Zone run by Geoffrey Canada – have annual incomes of almost $500,000.

Now that DeVos the Secretary of Education, she will attempt to do what she did in Michigan across the country.  About 80% of Michigan’s charter schools are run by for-profit companies.  Detroit especially displays the devastating effects the business model has had on public education. The city’s schools, where 83% of students are black and 74% live in poverty, have been in steady decline since charter schools started operating.  Test scores in math and reading have remained among the worst in the nation. This is because charters are highly selective, admitting mostly higher-performing students and discriminate against special needs children and those who exhibit “behavioral” problems.

Charters are siphoning money away from schools that are already overburdened and underfunded. A recent study from the Michigan State University’s Education Policy Center found that under the state’s school choice and finance laws, it was hard for districts to keep traditional public schools afloat when charters reached 20% or more of enrollment. While per-student public funding follows kids to charters, traditional public schools still have fixed costs to cover, like building maintenance and faculty salaries.

Betsy DeVos and the billionaires she represents view public education as a profit-making venture instead of a fundamental democratic right. Unless DeVos can be stopped, her policies will do to public education what “market reform” has done for housing, healthcare, and the economy: produce lavish profits for a few and unequal access for many.  Those who support for-profit charter schools are distracting the public from the real issues facing our children. America has a shameful child poverty rate (over 20%), communities suffer from underfunded schools, and our society has a broken criminal justice system that sends too many young people to jail instead of college. There’s no question that America’s schools need to be fixed, but more importantly, we need to fix our democracy.

Paul Donnelly teaches US History and Government at Poughkeepsie High School in New York.

Paul Donnelly teaches US History and Government at Poughkeepsie High School. He is also an instructor at Vassar College’s Urban Education Initiative.