Betsy DeVos: the worst possible choice for Education Secretary

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist


Largely as a result of the DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan tolerates

more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state.

Stephen Henderson, Detroit Free Press 

Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, and her brother Erik Prince are partners in the “privatize everything” craze that is tearing America’s social fabric apart. We remember Prince from the Iraq War, where, in 2007, hired guns of his now discredited private security firm Blackwater killed 17 unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. In 2014 four Blackwater employees were convicted and sentenced for their crimes.

DeVos Supported Charters: Some of the Worst in the Nation
No children have died because of DeVos’ support for unregulated charter schools in Detroit, but Tulane University’s Douglas Harris calls her efforts there “the biggest school reform disaster in the country.” Only 2 percent of Michigan’s traditional public schools rank lower than Detroit’s charters.

According to a recent state survey, “eight in 10 of Michigan’s charters have academic achievement below the state average in reading and math.” These schools—80 percent managed by for-profit companies—take $1 billion annually from Michigan’s education budget. Traditional public schools can be shut down for poor performance, but, thanks to legislation DeVos introduced, charters do not have to answer for their dismal results.

Charter schools in New Orleans, Chicago, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. are doing much better. (Moscow’s are superb.) Writing for the Washington Post (9/20/16) Richard Whitmire reports that the D.C. charters “were allowed enough flexibility to succeed and enough accountability to weed out the worst schools.” Charters receive most of their funding from the public, so they also need to be transparent in their use of those monies.

Most of Michigan’s charters continue to operate regardless of performance, but 20 in D.C. have been closed over the past five years. (Underperforming traditional schools have been shut as well.) Non-profit companies D. C. Prep and Knowledge is Power (KIPP) administer the most successful D. C. charters, which make up 40 percent of the district’s schools. The most successful charters in Detroit are run by the non-profit Equity Education Solutions.

Overall Charter Schools Have Not Succeeded
Surveys of charter schools over the last 20 years have shown that, just as with public schools, there are those that excel that those that fail. The lowest performing charters are found in Ohio and Nevada. Tennis star Andre Agassi runs for-profit charters schools across the nation, and one of his schools in Las Vegas is at the bottom in student achievement.

Overall, the effects of the charter school revolution have been negative. An Economic Policy Institute study shows that the existence of charter schools has increased inequality in our schools. In general the charters have increased “segregation among school children by economic status, race, language and disabilities.” As education expert Diane Ravitch reports: “From 2010 to 2015, more than 1,200 charters closed due to academic or financial difficulties.” That number is a full 30 percent of the nation’s 4,000 charter schools.

Teacher Unions Were Right to be Skeptical
In 1988, Albert Shanker, then President of the American Federation of Teachers, promoted the idea of what we now call charter schools. Shanker envisioned teacher-led laboratories of reform that would experiment with new instructional practices. These practices would then be subjected to rigorous evaluation and, if successful, serve as models for other public schools. Shanker also saw charter schools as a way to empower teachers, free them from overly bureaucratic regulations, and strengthen their voice in school and curriculum decision-making.

The first charter schools were established in Minnesota 25 years ago. The AFT insisted that they be accessible to all students, be thoroughly transparent in their finances, be fully accountable about their results, cooperate with local school districts, and allow their teachers to bargain collectively. AFT leaders, along with those in the National Education Association, made it clear that if these conditions were not met, they would oppose charter schools.

As the charter school movement evolved, the unions’ worst fears were confirmed. The intentions of the for-profit education companies were clear: the charters were to compete with and eventually replace public schools and their teachers would not be allowed to form unions. They have argued that they are private contractors and are therefore exempt from state labor laws or rules that govern the disciplining of students.

In many instances, charter schools have not been transparent with their finances, nor have they been open to independent evaluation. As a whole, they have not performed any better than public schools and they have not, as the report above indicates, provided equal access to all students.

Charter School Teachers are now Unionizing
Currently only 7 percent of charter school teachers are unionized. After being forced to rehire seven teachers they fired for a union representation drive, I CAN charter administrators in Ohio are now ready to accept union representation in Cleveland. Three I CAN schools have voted AFT and two others will be voting in the near future. Over 1,000 teachers in Chicago have also chosen the AFT to represent them in negotiations.

Many teachers and staff in unionized charter schools report high levels of job satisfaction, noting that they benefit from the best of both worlds: the protections and rights of a union and the freedom and flexibility of a charter. Specific contract items of the I CAN contract include 50 minutes of uninterrupted planning time per day; a three-year contract rather than being fired “at will”; and 30 minutes of uninterrupted, duty-free lunch (a gain first negotiated by AFT members in New York City 54 years ago).

AFT Charter Teachers in D. C. Blocked by GOP Congress
Charter school teachers in D. C. also want to unionize, but the GOP Congress will not give them permission to do so. Geoffrey Canada, a pro-charter leader, opposes collective bargaining because union contracts “kill innovation; they stop anything from changing.” Research in the highly unionized public schools (noted below) has proved just the opposite, as does the innovative ideas introduced by union teachers around the world.

Vouchers for Private Schools Do Not Work
Betsy DeVos, who sends her children to a Christian school, is also a strong supporter of vouchers, which would shift even more public school funds to private schools. For decades proponents of vouchers have resisted independent evaluation of their claims that student achievement would rise. They simply repeat their blind faith that the free market will solve all the nation’s problems.

Some states have mandated assessments, and the results in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and New York showed that students who switched to private schools did not show any significant gains. In fact, a study done in the Milwaukee revealed that public school students “significantly outperformed voucher students in reading and scored as well in math.”

Recent evaluations in Ohio and Louisiana showed some decline in achievement in Ohio students who switched, but they dropped of 8 to 16 percentile points in Louisiana. Once again, social science wins, and right-wing ideologues lose. But how can science actually win in Trump’s Post-Truth Era? One can only weep in despair.

Public Schools Do Better Than Privates
Education professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski have sent their children to public, charter, and Christian schools. They also served time on the board of an urban Christian school. The conclusion of their major study of public vs. private school performance is revealed in the title of their 2014 book: The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. This must be the reason that Americans have always rated their local public schools so highly. In the 2014 Education Next Survey, 47 percent of those polled gave their schools an “A” or “B.” 

The Lubienskis were motivated to do their comprehension study when one of them discovered that public school students do better in mathematics. They believe that math performance, rather than reading skills, is a better indicator of school achievement because most students learn to read at home. They also found that, contrary to common opinion, public schools are generally “more innovative” and have “more effective professional practices,” while many private schools suffered from curricular stagnation.

Many For-Profit Education Companies have Failed
In an article in The Atlantic (2/23/15) the author criticizes for-profit universities for “their poor performance, exorbitant pricing, and exploitation of vulnerable, low-income students.” Only 22 percent of their students graduate in stark contrast to 55 percent and 65 percent from public and private schools respectively. A good portion of their revenue comes from federal student loans and grants, and the Obama administration is attempting to stop these discredited institutions from financing themselves in such a fraudulent way.

For-profit companies that set up private K-12 schools have had a similar track record. In 1991 entrepreneur Chris Whittle launched the Edison Project, and he promised that his private schools would cost less per student than public schools and that student achievement would be better.

When he could not get the vouchers that he wanted from the Clinton administration, Whittle then contracted with school districts to take over troubled schools and run their charters. District after district in Georgia, Texas, Massachusetts, and Michigan discontinued their contracts after Edison administrators failed to reduce costs or improve student achievement.

Unions Not the Cause of Poor Schools
It is important to note that 68 percent of K-12 teachers are unionized. At 2.7 million members the National Education Association, together with the American Federation of Teachers, represent 3.8 million teachers, by far the largest number of unionized employees in the nation.

America’s poor education performance is routinely laid at the unions’ feet, but some of the best teachers in the world—the Finns are still tops—are proud union members. Low salaries and poor working conditions are the primary reason for high turn-over in charter schools, and collective bargaining contracts address both of those fundamental issues.

Critics have been quick to report that the AFT’s own experiment with a charter elementary school was a failure, but they neglect to mention that the AFT’s University Prep charter high school is among the very best in New York City. Simply changing a school’s governance structure—for example, from regular public to charter, or from charter to regular public—does not magically lead to better results.

DeVos’ Push for Vouchers will Fail
DeVos’ plan to privatize education through vouchers is bound to fail, because, fortunately, our public schools are controlled by 13,000 local school boards. Less than 9 percent of the $600 billion that is spent on K-12 education comes from the federal government. Kevin Carey of the New York Times (11/23/16) reminds DeVos that “there are no existing federal funds that can easily be turned into vouchers large enough to pay for private school tuition” across the nation.

The Senate Should Not Confirm DeVos

I conclude with this comment from Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers: “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.”

I urge readers to write to their senators and demand that they not confirm DeVos. The last thing we need for our children is a Secretary of Private Education.

Nick Gier of Moscow is President of the Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFT/AFL-CIO. He taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read all of his columns on higher education at This version of Gier’s column is an extended version from the print edition.

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