From 1991 to 1993, I worked for Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. I was Assistant Secretary in charge of the Office of Education Research and Improvement and also Counselor to the Secretary of Education. Lamar Alexander is now Senator from Tennessee and Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), which is evaluating the qualifications of Betsy DeVos to be U.S. Secretary of Education.*




An Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander



Dear Lamar,


I hope you don’t mind my taking the liberty of writing you a public letter.


I was just reading your book of sayings, the “Little Plaid Book.” For those who don’t know, this is your book of “311 rules, lessons, and reminders about running for office and making a difference whether it’s for president of the United States or president of your senior class.”


The main lesson of the book for me is that you should be honest with people. You shouldn’t bore them. You shouldn’t lecture them or try to impress them. You should get to know them, listen to them, respect their concerns, and try to understand their problems.


Rule 151 is very important at this time in our national life. It says, “When stumped for an answer, ask yourself, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ Then do it.”


Rule 168 says, “Read whatever Diane Ravitch writes about education.” It doesn’t say that anyone should agree with what I write, it just says you should read it.


So I am writing you this letter in hopes that you will read it and that I can persuade you to do the right thing.


When I worked for you in the early 1990s in the Department of Education, I absorbed important lessons about character and ethics in public life. You were a model of dignity, integrity, and respect for others. You never raised your voice. You smiled and laughed often. You were always well informed. You picked the best person for whatever job was open.


Now you are in the position of selecting a new Secretary of Education. I watched the hearings, and it was evident to all but the most extreme partisans that Ms. DeVos is uninformed, unqualified, unprepared, and unfit for the responsibility of running this important agency.


When asked direct questions about important federal issues, she was noncommittal or evasive or displayed her ignorance. She thinks compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Act–which protects children with disabilities– should be left up to the states; she does not know it is a federal law and is not optional. When asked about higher education, she was stumped. She was unfamiliar with the basic terminology of education issues.


Her lack of experience leaves her ill-equipped to address the needs of the vast majority of America’s schools. I understand that she doesn’t like public schools and much prefers religious schools and privately managed charter schools, including those that operate for-profit. 


Frankly, it is unprecedented for a Secretary of Education to disapprove of public schools. At least eighty-five percent of American school children attend public schools. She has no ideas about how to improve public schools. Her only idea is that students should leave them and enroll in nonpublic schools.


She would be the first Secretary of Education in our history to be hostile to public education. I have written extensively about the history of public education and how important it is to our democracy. It seems strange to return to the early 19th century, when children attended religious schools, charity schools, charter schools, were home-schooled, or had no education at all. This is not “reform.” This is backsliding. This is wiping out nearly two centuries of hard-won progress towards public schools that enroll boys and girls, children of all races and cultures, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English. We have been struggling to attain equality of educational opportunity; we are still far from it. School choice promotes segregation and would take us further away from our national goal.


Since Michigan embraced the DeVos family’s ideas about choice, Michigan has steadily declined on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.


In 2003, Michigan ranked 28th among the states in fourth-grade reading; the latest results, in 2015, showed that Michigan had dropped to 41st.


In 2003, Michigan ranked 27th in fourth- grade math; by 2015, it had declined to 42nd among the states.


Michigan has hundreds of charter schools. About 80% of them are run by for-profit operators. The Detroit Free Press conducted a one-year review of the charter sector and concluded it was a $1 billion a year industry that operated without accountability or transparency and that did not produce better results than public schools. Last year, when the legislature tried to develop accountability standards for the charter industry, Ms. DeVos successfully lobbied to block the legislation.


Detroit is awash in charters and few of them perform as well as the public schools. Detroit is the lowest rated urban district in the nation on the NAEP. The proliferation of choice and charters has not improved education in that city.


As I am sure you are aware, Tenneesee’s “Achievement School District” has been an abject failure. The state’s lowest performing schools were taken over and given to charter operators. The leaders of the ASD claimed that these low performing schools would go from the bottom 5% in the state to the top 20% in five years. That was five years ago. Not one of the promises was kept. The schools are still among the lowest performing in Tennessee. There are actually research-based approaches that would have helped the children and the schools, like reducing class size and providing medical services. Charters are not a research-based reform.


As for vouchers, there have been many state referenda over the past 20 years, and the voters have rejected them every time, by large margins. When Ms. DeVos and her husband Richard led a movement to change the Michigan state constitution to permit vouchers for religious schools in the year 2000, the referendum was defeated by 69-31%. Even in deep red Utah, the public rejected vouchers overwhelmingly in 2007. Florida was the last state to reject vouchers, in a 2012 vote deceptively named the Religious Freedom Act; voters rejected it by 58-42%.


Time and again, the American public has said that they don’t want public money to be spent to pay tuition for religious schools. That is the responsibility of the family, not the state.


There is ample evidence about vouchers, which have been imposed by legislatures, not by popular vote. Milwaukee, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia offer vouchers, and these districts are among the lowest performing in the nation on national tests. Milwaukee and Cleveland have had vouchers for more than 20 years, and neither district has seen any improvement in its public schools, nor do the voucher schools outperform the public schools. When the taxpayers’ precious dollars are divided among two or three sectors, none of them flourishes.


I feel sure that you do not want your legacy to be that you aided in destroying the historic institution of universal public education in the United States. Every dollar that goes to a charter school or to vouchers is taken away from the budget of the community’s public schools. In a regime of free-market choice, public schools, which educate the great majority of students, will have larger classes and fewer programs, services, and electives, all in the name of a failed concept called “choice.” I need not remind  you that the origin of school choice was the sustained effort by racist governors and legislatures to preserve racial segregation in the South; the term was tainted by its origins for many years, but the effect remains the same: School choice will exacerbate racial, religious, and socioeconomic segregation without improving education. 


The Every Student Succeeds Act, which you worked so hard to produce in a bipartisan spirit, goes a long way towards devolving control of education to states. I, of course, would have liked to see the elimination of the federal mandate for annual testing, which has proven to be ineffective for 15 years.


But the best way to enable ESSA to work is to appoint a Secretary of Education who comes to the job with knowledge, experience, a strong devotion to civil rights and equality of educational opportunity, and a commitment to let districts and states nurture better ideas than those mandated by Washington.


With kind regards and great respect,


Diane Ravitch


*I posted this column yesterday at the Huffington Post in a slightly abridged form (I edit and revise constantly). Much to my surprise, the comments were remarkably positive. People are truly aware that Ms. DeVos is ill-suited for this job.