Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, attempting to assuage fears that Betsy DeVos would privatize American schools. If she tries to promote privatization, she is likely to face “disappointment and frustration,” as Carey put it. He believes that the decentralization of American public education will prevent her from imposing privatization. I disagree with Carey, because we have seen state after state, district after district, where “reformers” have passed legislation for charters and vouchers, intended to undermine public schools without the consent of the governed. Massachusetts and Georgia, the only states that voted on whether to have more charters, decisively voted NO. The point of Carey’s article seems to be to persuade readers that charters are swell and vouchers will never happen, that DeVos can’t change much, so relax, privatization is not a threat. Can’t happen. Won’t happen. Trust me.
The New America Foundation, Carey’s employer, has received nearly $10 million from the Gates Foundation since 2009. Not surprisingly, it regularly defends charter schools and the Common Core standards. It has even urged colleges to adopt the standards now.
Carey previously worked at Education Sector and Education Trust, both Gates-funded and charter-friendly. He tells us that “charter schools are public schools, open to all, accountable in varying degrees to public authorities, and usually run by nonprofit organizations.” Savvy readers of this blog know that charter schools declare that they are private organizations whenever they are sued or when their teachers try to form a union, but they are “public” when it is time to collect government money. They choose their students. They exclude children with severe disabilities and English-language-learners. They kick out troublesome students. In many states, charters are deregulated, unsupervised, and non-accountable. Carey has written favorably about the for-profit Alt-School chain of technology-based private schools (which would be eligible for Trump’s vouchers). Carey joined Eli Broad and every national “reform” group (including TFA, 50CAN, DFER, etc.) to endorse the Obama administration’s plan for “reforming” teacher education. After the 2008 election, he called on Democrats to embrace such “progressive” reforms as charter schools and test-based accountability.*
Carey says not to worry about DeVos’ passion for privatization because most states won’t be able to afford the cost of a universal voucher system. Trump says he will free up $20 billion from existing federal programs, but expects states to chip in another $110 billion. That won’t happen, Carey says, because “states don’t have that kind of money lying around.” Local school districts will resist the diversion of their property taxes. And besides, Betsy DeVos’ state laboratory of free-market reform–Michigan–is hardly a success. 80% of the charters there operate for profit, and Detroit is still a mess, despite a Wild West of charters and competition. Nor have vouchers proved to be a success.
Larded throughout the article is subtle praise for charters. He points out that expansion of charters was voted down in Massachusetts “despite strong evidence that the state’s well-supervised charters produce superior results for low-income and minority schoolchildren.” No mention of the reason that liberal Massachusetts rejected charters: the districts with charters did not want to sacrifice their public schools to the growth of charters, and the districts without charters wanted to protect their public schools. Organized groups of parents rang doorbells and told their friends and neighbors to support their public schools. The defenders of public education were outspent 2-1 by out-of-state billionaires like the Waltons and Michael Bloomberg, but they defeated the charter question by a vote of 62-38%.
Carey exemplifies the new line of “reformers”: charters run by private corporations and private boards are “public” but vouchers are a bad idea. The problem with this logic is that once you start down the road of school choice, it is hard to know when or how to stop. The Obama administration’s advocacy for charter schools greased the wheels for vouchers, some form of which now exist in about half the states.
Yes, we do have to worry about DeVos and Trump’s privatization agenda. If the state is a deep red state, with a Republican governor and a Tea Party legislature, like Indiana and many more, the state may grab whatever the feds offer and supply vouchers to anyone who wants them to use for any purpose, including home schooling and low-quality religious schools. DeVos may open the floodgates to unregulated, for-profit charters, allowing anyone to open a charter who wants to, regardless of their experience or qualifications (like Florida, Michigan, and Nevada). School choice does not have a record of success; charters get mixed results, at best, and vouchers have a record of failure. Even when they produce higher graduation rates, they simultaneously have astonishingly high attrition rates.
Join with the Network for Public Education to fight the DeVos nomination. Democrats, Republicans, and independents must stand together in opposition to this raid on public money. Separation of church and state is part of our heritage as Americans. Public schools that enroll all children–not just those they want–are part of our democracy.
When the federal government turns against public education, as the Trump administration promises to do, that is unprecedented. We don’t need to be soothed and promised that its threats to public education are not real. They are real. They build on the opening to school choice created by the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Foundation and the think tanks that they have underwritten as part of their “policy advocacy.”
Parents and educators and concerned citizens must mobilize to oppose the Trump privatization agenda.
*I had my own unfortunate brush with Carey in 2011; I didn’t realize he was a key player in the “reform” movement, and I agreed to an interview. He published a mean-spirited screed about me, taking pot shots at my scholarly works and claiming that I changed my philosophy of education because Joel Klein did not give my partner a job. At the time, I was closeted, and Carey managed to “out” me. My partner already had a high-level job at the Board of Education when Klein arrived and was not in need of a job. So long as she worked at the Board, I was constrained from criticizing Klein or Bloomberg, whose policies of disruption did little to improve education. Once she retired, I was free to write and speak my mind. Yes, they helped me to see the deep flaws of corporate reform, of putting non-educators in charge of schools, of intimidating experienced educators, of trying to run schools like a business, of making test scores the basis for all decisions, but not for the reason Carey and Klein asserted.