Archives for category: Betsy DeVos

The talented investigative journalist Jennifer Berkshire reports on the changing politics behind charter schools. Democratic support for charters, once led by the Obama administration, is waning. Betsy DeVos made clear that school choice is a Republican goal.

She writes:

In 2019, when West Virginia passed legislation that allowed for the creation of charter schools, it represented yet another feather in the cap of the school-choice movement. Nearly three decades after the creation of the very first publicly funded, privately managed school, in Minnesota, charters now educate more than 3.3 million K-12 students in 7,500 schools across the country, and West Virginia—where lawmakers ignored the fierce opposition of the state’s teachers’ union—became the forty-fifth state to allow them.

Yet today the charter school movement itself is perhaps more vulnerable than it has ever been. Unlikely allies in the best of times, its coalition of supporters—which has included progressives, free-market Republicans, and civil rights advocates, and which has been handsomely funded by deep-pocketed donors and Silicon Valley moguls—is unraveling.

Much of the blame rests on the hyperpolarized politics of the Trump era. Under Betsy DeVos, the lightning-rod secretary of education, Republicans rediscovered their love for private school vouchers and religious education. And with the taste for all things neoliberal on the wane within today’s Democratic Party, charter schools, long the favored policy plaything of the liberal donor class, are simply a harder sell….

The GOP’s most stunning move was to enact, without a single Democratic vote, the Hope Scholarship Program, a sweeping voucher program aimed at moving students out of what the right refers to derisively as “government schools.” Starting in 2022, West Virginia parents who withdraw their children from public schools will receive their child’s state share of public education funding—approximately $4,600 in 2021—to spend on virtually any educational cost: private school tuition, online education programs, homeschooling, tutors, even out-of-state boarding schools. Newly school-age students whose parents never intended to go the public route are also eligible for the funds, which can be banked and spent on future expenses, similar to a health savings account.

While West Virginia’s moves were the most dramatic, legislators in 18 states, including Florida, Indiana, Arizona, and New Hampshire, were close behind, creating private school–choice initiatives or expanding existing ones. Although lawmakers pointed to the pandemic’s shuttering of public schools as part of the justification, schools—both public and private—in most of these states remained open. For all of the bluster from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others about the importance of in-person schooling, the GOP’s favored school-choice programs increasingly bypass traditional classroom learning altogether. Instead, parents are encouraged to use publicly funded “education freedom accounts” to purchase an array of education “options,” much like television viewers who eschew cable packages for à la carte channels.

Charles Siler, a former lobbyist for the pro-privatization Goldwater Institute in Arizona, says that the GOP’s increasing hostility to public schools could ultimately harm charters as well. “The real target here is taxpayer-funded public education, and that’s a category that includes charters,” said Siler.

Ethan DeWitt of the New Hampshire Bulletin and NPR reported on the partisan divide surrounding vouchers. Republicans budgeted for 28 students but expect between 1,000-5,000 to enroll. Democrats worry that the cost of vouchers will spin out of control.

Both should worry that the evidence base for the efficacy of vouchers shows high attrition rates and meager or negative academic results. Furthermore, the voucher advocates repeat the big lie that a state grant of $5,000 will give poor kids the same opportunities as rich kids, whose families pay far more for private schools.

During a two-hour event sponsored by the conservative advocacy organization Club for Growth, DeVos and Pompeo applauded New Hampshire’s initiative. And they framed the effort to allow public money to help students attend private schools as essential to closing the country’s achievement gap when compared to other developed countries.

Here is a link to Pompeo’s speech.

“The same chance”? Not so. Saying it doesn’t make it so.

Representative Mel Myers, Democrat and ranking member of the NH House Education Committee, sent me the following comment:

You have to remember that this voucher policy was slipped into the budget with no public hearing on this bill version. Our House Education Committee heard a similar bill which was tabled after a rigorous challenge on the part of the Democratic members of the committee. During the remote hearing, over 1000 signed up and over 800 were in opposition. Our Governor Chris Sununu and Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut continue their agenda to dismantle NH education which has always ranked in the top five in the nation.


Rep. Mel Myler

Ranking Dem

House Education Committee

Jeanne Diestch, a former Democratic state senator in New Hampshire, recently wrote about the attention showered on the state’s new voucher program by Republican conservatives like Mike Pompeo, a likely Presidential candidate, and Betsy DeVos. Republicans took control of the New Hampshire legislature until 2020; its Governor, Chris Sununu, is a Republican, and he appointed the state’s commissioner of education, Frank Edelblut, who homeschooled his children. Republicans wasted no time in passing a sweeping voucher bill.

US Conservatives Eyeing NH Vouchers

Diestch wrote in her newsletter:


Why the GOP hates the world’s top education models

When a former Secretary of Education and a future Presidential candidate come to New Hampshire for the rollout of a new state educational policy, you know something important is afoot. The candidate, Mike Pompeo, stated at the event that US schools are falling behind because we have a “public-school monopoly”; adopting NH’s “Education Freedom Accounts” [EFAs] would allow the “free market” to correct this problem. This change is so important to conservatives that the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity is handing out supportive pamphlets door-to-door in Bedford. So let’s look at three questions:

  1. Why do conservatives want the free market to control education rather than local public-school districts?
  2. Why are so many outside the state so interested in a change inside New Hampshire?
  3. How will all this impact us, the people of the state?

WHY DO CONSERVATIVES WANT FREE-MARKET EDUCATION?
Nations with top education scores all rely on public schools. If the US followed their examples:

  • Teachers would be highly educated, well-paid and respected. In Finland, for example, acceptance for an education degree can be more competitive than medical school.
  • Schools would have shorter vacations, but also shorter school days. In China, elementary students take 90-minute lunch breaks. In Singapore, teachers use the additional time for planning lessons and collaborating on how to improve students’ performance.
  • After the regular school day, learning would continue at home or in tutoring sessions, especially for secondary students. Parents’ role in most successful nations is to ensure children do their three hours or so of assigned homework.

All these top-scoring countries rely on
public-education systems.

(Note that China is not really first; it only submits scores from 4 wealthy provinces.)Why don’t conservatives want to follow these successful models? More school days with highly qualified educators cost more. Companies want to sell high-margin educational software, supported by low-paid trainees, rather than pay education professionals’ salaries. New Hampshire’s EFAs potentially shift millions from public-school teachers and administrators to corporations seeking shareholder profits. In addition, church-based schools are seeking their share of EFAs. Then there is the fact that more-educated people tend to vote Democratic.

WHY SO MANY EYES ARE WATCHING NH EFAS
That is why so many outside New Hampshire are focused on EFAs here. National and international commercial and religious interests will be contributing to Mr. Pompeo and other conservative candidates. Donors hope that if a highly ranked state like New Hampshire can be convinced to hand their taxpayer dollars to unsupervised scholarship funds (see inset below), the rest of the nation will follow.EFAs hide spending detail from taxpayers

EFAs move millions in taxpayer funds from local school board oversight to an independent contractor. The contractor only has to report three things to the Department of Revenue
Administration: amount spent on administration, total number of scholarships, and average scholarship size. The state has no knowledge of who receives how much.
— NH RSA 77 G:5(g)HOW EFAS WILL CHANGE NH
EFAs impact far more than students. When EFAs substitute a $4600 payment for a year of public-school education, someone has to make up the difference. A religious school might charge only $2000 more per year in tuition, but how many low-income households can afford $2000 per child? The upshot is that poor neighborhoods will still need to rely on public schools, but those schools will have fewer per-student dollars to support them. Property taxpayers will have to make up the difference or close schools. The hit will be especially severe in Coos County, where thousands of educators comprise a significant segment of employees. When those schools are forced to close, most educators will move out, worsening Coos towns already dwindling populations and decreasing property values. Our most diverse populations in Manchester and Nashua are also more likely to suffer from the shift in funding caused by EFAs because they have lower incomes. In southern New Hampshire, the census showed that population did increase due to in-state migration. But what families will want to move into a state whose public schools are foundering? The answer is, those families for whom $4600 is enough to send their children to low-tuition religious schools, those families who can already afford expensive private school but would like taxpayers to subsidize them, and those families who want taxpayer funding for parent-guided home education programs. These differ from the workers attracted over the last decade to New Hampshire for its highly rated public schools. How will this affect companies struggling to find employees? No one knows, but the answer will certainly impact our economy.
EFAs will also impact New Hampshire society. Communities forced to close their schools will become less cohesive. Children educated only alongside others with similar backgrounds will have less understanding of the world and their place in it. They will be less able to succeed in the diverse demographics that will make up our nation’s future.
Perhaps conservatives have decided not to follow successful models for improving public education because they do not want the public to be educated. They would prefer people who let corporations and the wealthy take advantage of them, who have been taught to villainize a government that protects public interests.

Readers of this blog have followed the advance of privatization of public school funding for nearly a decade. We know the big foundations and individuals that support privatization. We have followed their activities and watched as all of their strategies have failed to match their promises. The great puzzle, to me, is the indifference of the mainstream media. While they cover political scandals of every variety, they are just not interested in the sustained campaign to divert public money to schools there privately managed,to religious schools, to other private schools, and even to homeschooling. The media rightly criticized Betsy DeVos’s crusade for school choice, but as soon as she left office, they lost interest in the issue. Meanwhile, red states are rushing to open more charter schools and fund more vouchers.

Maurice Cunningham explored this issue in a recent post on the blog of the MassPoliticsProfs. He chastises the Boston Globe, but the same complaint could be directed to most mainstream media.

He begins:

Suppose WalMart swept into Boston and spent millions to acquire Market Basket. The town would go ballistic. It would be covered every day in every media outlet, front page of the Boston Globe. But the Walton Family Foundation of Arkansas—the exact same heartless* mercenaries—spends millions of dollars to take over public schools and it gets ignored. Why is that?

He discusses “Hidden Politics” and “the Politics of Pretending.” He has written frequently about astroturf groups and how they present themselves to a gullible media as authentic spokesmen for parents or for some other groups.

That’s the PR facade, he says. What really matters is: who is funding these groups? Why doesn’t the media care?

I always thought that if out-of-state billionaires could be proven to have entered the state using local fronts to change Massachusetts education policy that would be a great, great, great story. I’ve been proven wrong again, and again, and again. I still think it’s a great story, it’s just a great story that only gets told at a small political science blog. Why is that?

Why is that?

A while back, I read a vitriolic article in a rightwing publication that expressed contempt for the public schools and congratulated Betsy DeVos for trying to cut federal funding for schools.

The article asserted that public schools are “garbage” and the government should slash their funding. A major piece of evidence for the claim that money doesn’t matter was the failure of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants program, which spent more than $3 billion and accomplished nothing. The evaluation of SIG was commissioned by the U.S Department of Education and quietly released just before the inauguration of Trump. The report was barely noticed. Yet now it is used by DeVos acolytes to oppose better funding of our schools.

The wave of Red4Ed teachers’ strikes in 2019 exposed the woeful conditions in many schools, including poorly paid teachers, lack of nurses and social workers and librarians, overcrowded classrooms, and crumbling facilities. The public learned from the teachers’ strikes that public investment in the schools in many states has not kept pace with the needs of students and the appropriate professional compensation of teachers. Many states are spending less now on education than they did in 2008 before the Great Recession. They reacted to the economic crisis by cutting taxes on corporations, which cut funding for schools.

Sadly, the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top program promoted the same strategies and goals as No Child Left Behind. Set goals for test scores and punish teachers and schools that don’t meet them. Encourage the growth of charter schools, which drain students and resources from schools with low test scores.

One can only dream, but what if Race to the Top had been called Race to Equity for All Our Children? What if the program had rewarded schools and districts that successfully integrated their schools? What if it had encouraged class-size reduction, especially in the neediest schools? Race to the Top and the related SIG program were fundamentally a replication and extension of NCLB.

When Arne Duncan defended his “reform” (disruption) ideas in the Washington Post, he cited a positive 2012 evaluation and belittled his own Department’s 2017 evaluation, which had more time to review the SIG program and concluded that it made no difference. The 2017 report provided support for those who say that money doesn’t matter, that teacher compensation doesn’t matter, that class size doesn’t matter, that schools don’t need a nurse, a library, a music and arts program, or adequate and equitable funding.

The Education Department’s 2017 evaluation shows that the Bush-Obama strategy didn’t made a difference because its ideas about how to improve education were wrong. Low-performing schools did not see test-score gains because both NCLB and RTTT were based on flawed ideas about competition, motivation, threats and rewards, and choice.

Here is a summary of the SIG program in the USED’s report that the Right used to defend DeVos’s proposed budget cuts.

The SIG program aimed to support the implementation of school intervention models in low-performing schools. Although SIG was first authorized in 2001, this evaluation focused on SIG awards granted in 2010, when roughly $3.5 billion in SIG awards were made to 50 states and the District of Columbia, $3 billion of which came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. States identified the low-performing schools eligible for SIG based on criteria specified by ED and then held competitions for local education agencies seeking funding to help turn around eligible schools.

SIG-funded models had no significant impact on test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment…

The findings in this report suggest that the SIG program did not have an impact on the use of practices promoted by the program or on student outcomes (including math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment), at least for schools near the SIG eligibility cutoff. In higher grades (6th through 12th), the turnaround model was associated with larger student achievement gains in math than the transformation model. However, factors other than the SIG model implemented, such as unobserved differences between schools implementing different models, may explain these differences in achievement gains.

These findings have broader relevance beyond the SIG program. In particular, the school improvement practices promoted by SIG were also promoted in the Race to the Top program. In addition, some of the SIG-promoted practices focused on teacher evaluation and compensation policies that were also a focus of Teacher Incentive Fund grants. All three of these programs involved large investments to support the use of practices with the goal of improving student outcomes. The findings presented in this report do not lend much support for the SIG program having achieved this goal, as the program did not appear to have had an impact on the practices used by schools or on student outcomes, at least for schools near the SIG eligibility cutoff.

What NCLB, Race to the Top, and SIG demonstrated was that their theory of action was wrong. They did not address the needs of students, teachers, or schools. They imposed the lessons of the non-existent Texas “miracle” and relied on carrots and sticks to get results. They failed, but they did not prove that money doesn’t matter.

Money matters very much. Equitable and adequate funding matters. Class size matters, especially for children with the highest needs. A refusal to look at evidence and history blinds us to seeing what must change in federal and state policy. It will be an uphill battle but we must persuade our representatives in state legislatures and Congress to open their eyes, acknowledge the failure of the test-and-punish regime, and think anew about the best ways to help students, teachers, families, and communities.

The findings of the report were devastating, not only to the SIG program, but to the punitive strategies imposed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which together cost many more billions. 

My first reaction was, Money doesn’t matter if you spend it on the wrong strategies, like punishing schools that don’t improve test scores, like ignoring the importance of reducing class size, like ignoring the importance of poverty in the lives of children, like ignoring decades of social science that out-of-school factors affect student test scores more than teachers do.

Gary Rubinstein revisits the past decade of failed reforms and notes how frequently the “reformers” made promises and then failed to keep them. Michelle Rhee came on the national scene, appearing on the cover of TIME, then disappeared after helping to sink the mayor of D.C. who hired her. Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein claimed that under their leadership, there was a “miracle” in New York City, but the miracle disappeared when they and their public relations team left office. Jeb Bush touted a Florida “miracle,” but Florida remains mired in the depths of mediocrity when assessed by NAEP. Laurene Powell Jobs promised to “reinvent” the high school and handed out $100 millions to the schools she chose; many failed soon after. We await the “miracle.” Even Betsy DeVos claimed to be “rethinking” school, wondering why we needed public schools at all; now she is busy spreading millions to charter and voucher advocates in the red states.

Gary concluded his review of all the rethinking, reinventing, and rebranding by taking a close look at a school hyped by TFA. He looked at the numbers, and lo and behold, no miracle there.

In this “model” school, the kids are faring poorly:

OK, “So what,” you say, “only 1.1% of their 10th graders passed the science test and 2.7% of their 10th graders passed the math test. What matters is ‘growth.” Well in that department they didn’t fare so well either.

He concludes:

Usually it’s a lot harder than this. They often pick a school that has artificially inflated test scores due to attrition. Keep in mind, this is the school Villanueva Beard chose to highlight. One of the lowest performing schools in test scores and growth in the state of Indiana.

Whether they are ‘rethinkers,’ ‘reinventers,’ or ‘reimaginers’, a reformer by any other name still doesn’t know anything about schools.

The burning question is: When will the billionaires who fund “reform” and “reinvention” decide to stop funding failure?

New Hampshire Republicans are determined to use their new majority in both houses to jam through a generous voucher bill that would offer public money for students to attend any school they wanted, including religious schools, private schools, and homeschooling.

Down party lines, the Senate approved an expansive school voucher bill Thursday that would allow parents to use state education aid for a wide range of alternative educational opportunities for their children. The bill was then immediately tabled on another 14-10 party line vote – a move that enables the body to consider bills with a fiscal impact during the budget process.

Opponents have called Senate Bill 130 the most expansive voucher bill in the country with little accountability and say it would increase local property taxes, not reduce them as supporters claim.

They said the bill is the latest attempt to privatize education at the expense of the children remaining in the public school system.“Public education should be treasured, we should treasure the public education that all of us went through,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester. “All this legislation does is carve public education apart and that is not a good thing.”

Supporters said the bill seeks to help those students left behind and those who do not perform well in the public education setting.

They said the program would not only help students it would save state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said the current situation in public education is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.“The opposition centers on the preservation of an institution even if it is at the expense of the children who attend,” Giuda said. “This bill attempts to care for the children whom our schools don’t work for.”

He said the top reason parents apply to the current business tax credit school scholarship fund are for bullying and discrimination.

The program allows parents who best know their children to find the best fit for their children’s needs, Giuda maintained.

Under the bill, a parent seeking to establish an account would receive between $4,500 to $8,500 per pupil to spend on tuition to any private, religious, or alternative school and on other related educational costs including home schooling, computers, books etc.

The student’s parents would receive the basic state adequacy grant of about $3,700 as well as additional money if the student qualified for free or reduced lunches, special education services, English as a Second Language instruction, or failed to reach English proficiency.

The average grant is estimated to be $4,600.

The program is open to the parents of a student in public —traditional and charter — private or religious school, home schooling, or other alternative educational programs.

New Hampshire has some excellent private schools, some are day schools, some are boarding schools.

The most elite is Phillips Exeter, a boarding school, where the tuition is $55,402. Not likely to accept a single voucher student.

Then there is Brewster Academy, tuition $64,950.

The Dublin School has day students who pay $38,450 and boarding students who pay $66,800.

But if a parent can raise the difference, they might sent their child to Portsmouth Christian Academy, for $15,945 or Concord Christian Academy for $11,200. However, these schools have very small student bodies and are unlikely to find space for a student who is failing in their public school. (Concord Christian Academy has 216 students, perhaps they can make room for one more.)

The state grants will instead underwrite the tuition of students already enrolled in religious schools or being home-schooled. And perhaps a few who are able to find low-quality religious schools with uncertified staff and meager facilities, typically inferior to the public school that the students left.

The Republican legislators don’t care about the experience of other states, where vouchers attract small numbers of students but lead to budget cuts in public schools across the state. If they care to make up for the loss of revenue to public schools, the Legislature will have to raise property taxes. There is no way that vouchers for students currently paying their own way or leave public schools for private schools will reduce the cost of schooling.

It is a shame that none of the legislators consider the research on vouchers. It is not promising. Independent evaluator Mark Dynarski has reviewed many voucher studies and conducted the official evaluation of the D.C. voucher program. He finds that students who use vouchers fall behind their peers in public schools. Voucher schools typically have high attrition rates because the students or their parents realize that the miracles promised never happened. Reviewers at the Center for American Progress described the harm that vouchers do to students. CAP also warned of the dangers that vouchers pose to the civil rights of students. And they warned of the racist origins of school choice and the segregating impact of vouchers.

The Republican legislators are ignorant of the research. They keep repeating Betsy DeVos’s weary cliches, none of which have proven true.

How sad for the children of New Hampshire! How sad for the future of the state.

This interview was recorded by Town Hall in Seattle, which is a great venue for speakers but in COVID Times was recorded remotely. I interviewed them about their important new book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.

They had some very valuable insights, and the time flew by. I hope you will take a few minutes and join us.

Jennifer Berkshire and I interviewed Charles Siler about his inside knowledge of the privatization movement.

Jennifer is co-author of the important new book (with Jack Schneider) called A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.

As you will learn in the interview, Charles was brought up in a conservative environment. He studied at George Mason University in the Koch-funded economics department (you can read about it in Nancy MacLean’s excellent book Democracy in Chains, which I reviewed in The New York Review of Books). He worked for the Goldwater Institute and lobbied for ALEC and other billionaire-funded privatization groups.

At some point, he realized he was on the wrong side, promoting ideas that would do harm, not good. He wanted to do good.

He said unequivocally that the goal of the privatizers is to destroy public education. They promote charter schools and vouchers to destroy public education.

He explains that school privatization is only one part of a much broader assault on the public sector. The end game is to privatize everything: police, firefighters, roads, parks, whatever is now public, and turn it into a for-profit enterprise. He predicted that as vouchers become universal, the funding of them will not increase. It might even diminish. Parents will have to dig into their pockets to pay for what used to be a public service, free of charge.

Charles is currently helping Save Our Schools Arizona.

I reviewed A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door in The New Republic. It is an important book that pulls together all the threads of the privatization movement and shows that their agenda is not to improve education or to advance equity but to destroy public education. The review is here.

Tonight, I will join the authors at a town hall Zoom meeting in Seattle at 9 p.m. EST, 6 p.m. PST. Please join us!

It begins like this:

Two years ago, Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush’s secretary of education, and Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of education, wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post lamenting the decline of public support for the bipartisan consensus about education policy that began under Ronald Reagan. Elected officials strongly supported a regime of testing, accountability, and school choice, they wrote, but public enthusiasm was waning due to a lack of “courage” and “political will.”

A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of Schoolby Jack Schneider and Jennifer BerkshireBuy on BookshopThe New Press, 256 pp., $26.99

They were right. Elected officials, educators, and parents were rapidly losing faith in the bipartisan consensus. For a decade, it had failed to produce any improvement on national tests. Parents were opting their children out of the annual testing mandated by federal law; in New York, 20 percent of eligible students refused to take them. Teachers went to court to fight the test-based evaluation methods imposed by Duncan’s Race to the Top. Communities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia were complaining about the growth of charter schools, which diverted funds away from public schools. A year after Spellings and Duncan’s essay appeared, teachers across the nation, from West Virginia to California, went on strike to protest low wages, low funding, and large class sizes, issues that were ignored during the era of bipartisan consensus.

What went wrong? Why did the bipartisan consensus that Spellings and Duncan praised fall apart? In their new book, historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire provide a valuable guide to the history and the politics of the rise and fall of the bipartisan consensus. Theirs is indeed a cautionary tale, because they show how Republicans and Democrats joined to support failed policies whose ultimate goal was to eliminate public education and replace it with a free-market approach to schooling. Betsy DeVos was publicly reviled for her contemptuous attitudes toward public schools, but she was not an exception to the bipartisan consensus: She was its ultimate embodiment. She was the personification of the wolf at the schoolhouse door. 

Schneider and Berkshire write that they began the book to answer “a puzzling question: Why had conservative policy ideas, hatched decades ago and once languishing due to a lack of public and political support, suddenly roared back to life in the last five or so years?” Their prime example was private school vouchers, an idea first promoted by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s and rejected at that time by Congress. Private school vouchers were not the only policy prescription that was recycled from the ashcan of failed ideas. There was also “market-based school choice, for-profit schools, virtual schools,” and deregulation. These ideas were repackaged as innovative while their history and their conservative ideological origins were obscured. True believers, intent on eliminating public schools, built donor networks, cultivated political alliances, and churned out ready-made legislation. A key element in this network-building was the enlistment of billionaires who were enamored of free-market solutions and who opened their wallets to persuade national and state elected officials to inject competition and private-sector solutions into the public education system. 

This is a book you will want to read. Give it to your local school board members and your legislators.