Diane Ravitch: Trump’s Nominee for Secretary of Education Could Gut Public Ed

Billionaire Betsy DeVos will be great for private, religious and charter schools—and bad news for students and teachers.

Diane Ravitch January 9, 2017

Betsy DeVos speaks during Donald Trump’s “thank you” tour on Dec. 9, 2016, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Don Emmert/AFP)

It’s hard to imag­ine some­one less qual­i­fied to over­see the nation’s schools than Bet­sy DeVos, the Trump nom­i­nee for sec­re­tary of edu­ca­tion whose Sen­ate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing is set for Wednes­day. DeVos did not attend pub­lic schools, nor did her chil­dren. She has nev­er been a teacher, admin­is­tra­tor, prac­ti­tion­er or schol­ar of edu­ca­tion. In fact, one won­ders whether she has ever actu­al­ly set foot in a pub­lic school.

If there’s an upside to her nomination, it’s that she may force policymakers to admit the U.S. is headed toward privatization of its education system.

Instead, DeVos is a bil­lion­aire who grew up in the Chris­t­ian Reformed Church and would like to see reli­gious schools sup­port­ed by pub­lic fund­ing. She once described edu­ca­tion reform as a way to advance God’s king­dom.” Born into the pow­er­ful Prince fam­i­ly of Michi­gan, DeVos is part of the Chris­t­ian right roy­al­ty in the Unit­ed States. Her father, Edgar Prince, helped found the anti-gay Fam­i­ly Research Coun­cil. Her broth­er, Erik Prince, is founder of the mer­ce­nary group Black­wa­ter World­wide, which received large con­tracts from the gov­ern­ment dur­ing the Iraq War. Bet­sy lat­er mar­ried into the DeVos fam­i­ly, bil­lion­aires who found­ed the Amway com­pa­ny and also have deep ties to the Chris­t­ian right.

The two fam­i­lies have con­tributed gen­er­ous­ly to anti-gay and anti-labor caus­es over the years, but Bet­sy DeVos and her hus­band, Dick, have shown a spe­cial pas­sion for pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion. In 2000, they used their clout to orga­nize and fund a ref­er­en­dum in Michi­gan that would have allowed pub­lic mon­ey to flow to pri­vate and reli­gious schools through the use of school vouch­ers, a prac­tice the state con­sti­tu­tion for­bids. Michi­gan vot­ers defeat­ed the ref­er­en­dum resound­ing­ly, 69 – 31 per­cent, but that didn’t end DeVos’ crusade.

She also chairs the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion for Chil­dren, a lob­by­ing group that advo­cates for so-called school choice. DeVos has become a lead­ing nation­al pro­po­nent of school vouch­ers, which can be spent at reli­gious schools. But where they are banned, as in Michi­gan, she has also pushed for the pro­lif­er­a­tion of char­ter schools and opposed efforts to hold them accountable.

School choice advo­cates sel­dom men­tion that every dol­lar allo­cat­ed to vouch­ers or char­ters is a dol­lar sub­tract­ed from pub­lic schools, which are com­pelled to lay off teach­ers, increase class sizes and cut pro­grams in response. Mean­while, volu­mi­nous research on char­ters shows that they do not nec­es­sar­i­ly offer bet­ter qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion. Even those schools that get high test scores often achieve this by cher­ry-pick­ing new stu­dents and culling exist­ing ones through high attri­tion rates. Vouch­ers, mean­while, help prop up reli­gious schools that teach cre­ation­ism and employ few, if any, cer­ti­fied teachers.

The DeVos­es and their foun­da­tions have spent mil­lions nation­wide to elect pro-school choice can­di­dates to school boards, state leg­is­la­tures and Con­gress. Any­one who wants to under­stand the fail­ure of the school choice move­ment should look to Michi­gan. Char­ter schools were first autho­rized in the state in 1993. In 2014, a year-long inves­ti­ga­tion by the Detroit Free Press con­clud­ed that the state was spend­ing $1 bil­lion annu­al­ly on char­ters that per­formed poor­ly, and were nei­ther account­able nor trans­par­ent. Today, 80 per­cent of the state’s approx­i­mate­ly 300 char­ter schools are oper­at­ed by for-prof­it man­age­ment. Since the onset of school choice, Michigan’s per­for­mance on nation­al tests has steadi­ly declined.

If there’s an upside to DeVos’ nom­i­na­tion, it’s that she may force pol­i­cy­mak­ers to admit the U.S. is head­ed toward pri­va­ti­za­tion of its edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Pre­vi­ous edu­ca­tion sec­re­taries, includ­ing Arne Dun­can under Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and Rod Paige under Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, have pushed school choice poli­cies based on free-mar­ket ide­ol­o­gy. But dur­ing the Oba­ma years, the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion vocal­ly sup­port­ed char­ter schools while pre­tend­ing it could draw the line at vouch­ers. DeVos, to the con­trary, makes no bones about her goal of clear­ing the path for vouch­ers. Her dis­as­trous lega­cy in Michi­gan demon­strates that once pol­i­cy­mak­ers accept school choice as a pos­i­tive path, there is no philo­soph­i­cal bar­ri­er to oth­er kinds of privatization.

If DeVos’ nom­i­na­tion goes to a vote, her chances for con­fir­ma­tion would seem to be quite good, giv­en her family’s his­to­ry of gen­eros­i­ty to Repub­li­can cam­paigns. Among those who have ben­e­fit­ted from the largesse of DeVos and her hus­band are four sen­a­tors who serve on the Sen­ate edu­ca­tion com­mit­tee, as well as Sen­ate leader Mitch McConnell. If con­firmed, DeVos will be the first edu­ca­tion sec­re­tary who is active­ly hos­tile to pub­lic education. 

Diane Rav­itch is a his­to­ri­an of Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion and a best-sell­ing author. She blogs at Dian​eR​av​itch​.net.
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