Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited New York City this week. And what did she learn?
Nothing about public education, that’s for sure.
While in New York, DeVos did not visit a single public school. Not a traditional public school, and not a charter school. DeVos, however, did make time to tour a pair of private Orthodox Jewish day schools. She also made time to speak at a breakfast sponsored by two charities that promote Catholic parochial education.
Let me repeat that. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited the nation’s largest public school district, one responsible for educating 1.1 million students annually, and didn’t bother to check out even one public school.
What could she be thinking?
According to the Education Department’s own data, there are more than 50 million students attending U.S. public schools during the 2017-2018 school year. At last count, only 10 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren — about 5.7 million — attend private schools.
DeVos has made no secret of her desire to see that number increase. She is a strong supporter of charter schools and private education. And in her address to the Alfred E. Smith Foundation on Wednesday morning, she appeared to hold private religious education up as the ideal. “Parents hold the inalienable right to decide what learning environment best meets their children’s individual needs,” she said, adding:
There are many in Washington who seem to think that because of their power there, they are in a position to make decisions on behalf of parents everywhere. In that troubling scenario, the school building replaces the home, the child becomes a constituent and the state replaces the family.
Prior to her appointment, DeVos, who was basically a wealthy education hobbyist, was best known for her hostility toward traditional public schools — despite the fact neither she nor her children ever set foot in one as a student. She has ceaselessly lobbied and advocated for charter-school expansions, as well as government vouchers that would pay for private education, including at religious schools. She’s also a strong advocate of homeschooling.
While DeVos likes to wrap herself in the language of the righteous — she claimed on Wednesday morning that she is concerned about the “average” performance of U.S. students when it comes to international rankings — there is little proof that her suggested alternatives to public education will work any better.
While in some places there is evidence that children in charter schools perform better than those in traditional public schools, in other places, it’s just not so. In DeVos’ native Michigan, for example, children in the fourth and eighth grades in the state’s charter schools did worse on a national reading and math test than those in traditional public schools.
And religion is no guarantee of quality. Yes, the two Orthodox Jewish day schools DeVos toured while on this jaunt — the Manhattan High School for Girls and the Yeshiva Darchei Torah Boys School in Queens — are both well regarded. But others are not. While legally required to offer a public-school-equivalent education, there is an ongoing New York City investigation into practices at some schools in the highly insular ultra-Orthodox community, with claims that more than a few used by the Hasidic religious group prioritize religious studies to the point that many students graduating 12th grade are near ignorant when it comes to anything more than basic math, grammar, science or history, leaving them all but unemployable.
If DeVos has any concerns about this, I’ve missed it.
DeVos has also evidenced no curiosity that I’ve seen about the ways in which income inequality is a big driver of problems in American education. There is evidence that economic inequality is a large contributor to the overall middling performance by U.S. students when it comes to international comparisons, with a 2013 study suggesting that if our students came from an overall similar economic divide as other first-world countries, our ranking would rise considerably.
But don’t expect DeVos to acknowledge that. Trump’s proposed 2019 budget cuts overall education spending by about 5 percent, in part by taking the ax to programs that help poverty-stricken students.
If DeVos gets her way, the public-education system in the United States would be smaller, funded less, and all around worse than it is now. DeVos doesn’t want to inform herself on the full range of problems facing American education. She thinks she already knows the answers — and those answers, just coincidentally, coincide with her own religious and conservative political views. That she is secretary of education is nothing short of an abomination.