Valerie Strauss wrote a stunning dissection of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s lies to Congress in her recent testimony.

Was she lying because of ignorance or a desire to mislead the public? She lied about charter wait lists, about progress over time on NAEP scores, and about the failure of the federal Charter Schools Program, which spends $440 million to launch new charters, entirely at DeVos’ discretion.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/07/betsy-devoss-problem-with-numbers/

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has a problem with numbers. As in, she sometimes cites numbers that just aren’t accurate.

DeVos, of course, is hardly the only government official to cite inaccurate numbers to make a point, but that’s no reason not to point it out when she does — and she did during two appearances in the last week before congressional committees when defending the Trump administration’s proposed 2021 budget.

Let’s look at a few examples from her testimony.

One misleading figure that gets repeated, and not just by DeVos, is this: There are 1 million students on waiting lists at charter schools throughout the country. DeVos uses the statistic to show there is enormous demand for charters — which are publicly funded but privately operated — but not enough schools to accept all children who want to go. That, the argument goes, is why charter expansion should be encouraged.

To be sure, some charter schools are indeed in high demand and do have long waiting lists. But on some of the lists, there are duplicates, children who are already in other schools and other issues.

The 1 million figure was first cited in 2013 when the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools first made the claim. That alliance is led by Nina Rees, who worked for former vice president Richard B. Cheney. The alliance quickly revised the number it cited — to a minimum of 520,000 when it acknowledged that students were on duplicate lists.

In 2014, Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University, and Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and founder of the National Education Policy Center, wrote a policy brief titled “Wait, Wait, Don’t Mislead Me,” which gave nine evidence-based reasons the waiting list numbers from the charter alliance should not be believed. These include no external verification, the same students on multiple lists and students who were never removed from waiting lists after lengthy periods.

In 2016, WGBH in Boston came to the same conclusion when it investigated charter waiting list numbers used to justify lifting the cap on charters. There were students on waiting lists who were happily enrolled in another school, with no desire to leave. Citizens for Public Schools found the waiting list for Boston Public Schools and Boston charter schools to be comparable. Ultimately, voters rejected a statewide referendum to lift the cap on charter.

And yet DeVos used that debunked number when defending her budget before Congress.

DeVos also talked about scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as NAEP. It’s often referred to as “the nation’s report card” or the “gold standard” in student assessment because it is seen as the most consistent, nationally representative measure of U.S. student achievement since the 1990s and because it is supposed to be able to assess what students “know and can do….”

NAEP scores are eagerly anticipated as evidence that schools are — or are not — making progress, and DeVos says, on this score, they aren’t.

According to DeVos, there has been no growth on NAEP scores in the last 20 years. She said the federal government has spent “over a trillion dollars at the federal level to close the achievement gap in the last 40 years” but “that achievement gap has not closed one bit.”

Not exactly.

According to Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, the achievement gaps between white and black students and white and Hispanic students have been narrowing for decades — although unsteadily….

The gaps are still large, to be sure, but to say they haven’t budged is just not accurate.

The source of DeVos’s statement that $1 trillion has been spent over 40 years to close the achievement gap is unclear. The Education Department did not respond to a query about it.

During testimony last week before a House appropriations subcommittee, DeVos had an exchange with Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) about charter schools in which, again, she tossed out questionable numbers.

As I reported here (https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/02/28/four-especially-testy-moments-when-betsy-devos-testified-capitol-hill/ ), Pocan raised the issue of fraud in the federal Charter Schools Program, which has approved $3.3 billion for the expansion of charter schools since 1994. Forty percent of operating charter schools were created with money from the program.

Pocan referred to two reports about problems with that program released last year by a nonprofit advocacy group, the Network for Public Education, which was co-founded by education historian and public schools advocate Diane Ravitch.

One report said the program had wasted up to $1 billion on charter schools that never opened, or opened and then closed because of poor management or other reasons. The other report focused on hundreds of millions of dollars spent on charter schools that got federal funding but never opened. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/03/25/report-us-government-wasted-up-billion-charter-schools-still-fails-adequately-monitor-grants/)

When Pocan referred to the 2019 reports, DeVos said they had been “debunked,” which Pocan noted was not true.

She also essentially denied there were problems with the program, saying the percentage of charter schools that received federal funding and closed was tiny. She instead attributed the assertions to “propaganda from an individual who has it in for charter schools.” (It is unclear to whom she was referring. But if she meant Ravitch, whom she has criticized before, she may not have known that who does indeed oppose charter schools — did not write the reports, which you can read about here and here.)

As it turns out, some of the facts she disputed from the reports came from her own letter to Congress, an audit report of the Education Department’s Office of Inspector General, Texas newspapers and other reports from her department.

Pocan told DeVos the Texas-based IDEA charter school chain had received more than $200 million from the federal Charter Schools Program. He then noted that IDEA had planned to spend millions of dollars to lease a private jet before backing off following bad publicity, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for luxury box seats at San Antonio Spurs games. He also mentioned that IDEA board members were selling and brokering property to the charter chain they governed. (Tom Torkelson, chief executive of IDEA, publicly apologized for “really dumb and unhelpful” financial decisions.)

Pocan asked DeVos if she thought charter schools that receive federal funding should be allowed to use that money to purchase private jets, and she responded by saying it was a “hypothetical question” and that “there is no funding going to charter schools that would even address something like that.”

Actually, it was not hypothetical. The excesses of the IDEA charter chain described by Pocan were reported in the Houston Chronicle, the Texas Monitor and other news organizations and occurred during the years the chain was receiving grants from the federal Charter Schools Program.

In 2017, DeVos’s Education Department gave IDEA a grant of $67.2 million — even though it had not completed two other five-year grants. The next year, the department gave IDEA another grant for nearly $117 million.

Pocan continued, saying “the same group” — IDEA — had given incomplete and inaccurate information to the department during a three-year period. DeVos responded by saying, “Everything you are citing is debunked, ridiculous.” Pocan was citing an audit report by DeVos’s own Office of Inspector General.

At one point, DeVos circled back to the Network for Public Education reports and added that “the report that you referenced has been totally debunked as propaganda, fewer than 2 percent of schools didn’t open.” Later in the conversation with Pocan, she dropped that percentage to 1.5 percent.

That percentage was wildly different from the one included in a letter she wrote to Congress on June 28, 2019. That letter, signed by DeVos, states: “Since 2001, of the 5,265 charter schools that have received funding through a State entity or directly from the Department, 634 did not open and are unlikely to open in the future.”

If you do the math, you will come up with 12 percent. The two Network for Public Education reports came up with a similar percentage — a little over 11 percent.

Throughout the discussion, DeVos denied that 40 percent of the charter schools funded by the Charter Schools Program either opened and then closed or never opened at all. She said the 40 percent figure “was nothing but propaganda.”

As noted above, in her letter to Congress, DeVos said 5,265 schools had received funding through Charter School Program grants.

According to the 2019 Charter School Program Overview (see slide 8), 3,138 charter schools funded by the Charter Schools Program during the same time period were open in 2016-2017. That means 2,127 schools never opened or closed — which represents 40.4 percent of all charters funded from active grants during those years.