Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said a number of telling things this week during two days of testimony before Congress about her proposed 2020 department budget.
There was her noncommittal response to Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who asked for a yes or no answer to whether she thinks schools should be allowed to discriminate based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity:
“We have laws that cover discriminatory efforts, and our Office for Civil Rights has continued to be very diligent in investigating any allegation of discrimination and will continue to do so. . . . We follow the law as defined.”
This is how she responded to Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) when he asked whether the Education Department was complying with a court order to implement an Obama-era regulation designed to ensure children of color are not disproportionately punished or sent to special-education classrooms:
“The department is reviewing the court’s decision and discussing our options and we will move forward from there.”
And she repeatedly stated: “We need more charter schools and not less,” when asked about different issues, including a report from an education advocacy group that found $1 billion in federal money has been wasted on the U.S. Charter Schools Program.
But if there was one sentence that proved most revelatory about her philosophy of how children should be educated, it was this comment during an exchange with the chairwoman of the subcommittee, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.):
“We need traditional public schools to be held to the same accountability standards" as charter schools.
The statement is illustrative of DeVos’s education worldview.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated. They are one tentacle of the movement to create alternatives to traditional public school systems that DeVos has devoted decades of her life — and millions of dollars from her personal fortune — to expanding. Supporters say charters give families an important option to failing district schools; critics say they drain resources from the schools most students attend.
The charter school movement is nearly 30 years old. It was designed to allow people and organizations to open schools outside of district bureaucracy and to operate with public money. Most states have charter school laws, and many allow the schools to operate with little oversight and accountability.
Problems that have arisen are increasingly chronicled in the media and by advocacy groups that back traditional public schools.
Just this week, the advocacy group Network for Public Education released a report titled “Asleep at the Wheel” that detailed problems with the federal Charter Schools Program, to which DeVos has proposed adding $60 million for fiscal 2020.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the Los Angeles Times published two articles identifying problems with California’s lax charter school accountability laws, which new Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is slating for reform. One article’s headline said, “Small districts reap big profits by approving charter schools with little oversight"; the other, “Essential California: How a couple worked charter school regulations to make millions.”
The North Jersey Record published a five-part series titled, “Millions of your tax dollars have disappeared into NJ’s flawed charter school experiment.”
Last month, the Arizona Republic won the prestigious George Polk Award for Education Reporting for its investigation of the state’s charter schools, which, the newspaper said, “revealed how the state’s school funding system and permissive legal structure allow charter-school operators to make huge profits off public education dollars.”
So why would DeVos say that traditional public schools should be held to the same standards as charters?
The U.S. Education Department did not respond to a query about what she meant, but let’s consider the following.
Shortly before she made the comment to Pocan, she had an exchange with DeLauro about the Network for Public Education’s report, which says it is likely that one in four charters funded with federal dollars never opened or opened and then closed for mismanagement, fraud, low enrollment or other reasons.
DeVos reacted to this by saying:
“When you have experimentation you are always going to have schools that don’t make it and that is exactly as what should happen. They should close. And let’s also look at how many traditional public schools have closed because they are not doing well for their students.”
According to the Department of Education, few district schools close. The latest available data show there were 1,573 school closures in 2014-2015 — 308 of them charter schools — in a country with nearly 100,000 schools in public districts. The rest that closed that year were publicly funded district schools of various types, including special education and vocational schools.
In 2015, there were about 6,800 charter schools, which would mean a closure rate of just under 5 percent. In that year, about 1.3 percent of schools in traditional districts closed.
DeVos has often stated there should be no public education “system” but, rather, a public investment in individual students who should be able to use public money on whatever school program they want. That would include religious schools that discriminate against certain groups of students. The view is consistent with her market approach: Families decide with their feet whether schools should stay open.
DeVos’s critics accuse of her wanting to dismantle the country’s public school systems and privatize them. As education secretary, she has said her push for alternatives to public schools is not anti-public school but an effort to give choices to families.
Yet she was more direct in a speech she gave at the 2015 SXSW EDU convention in Austin:
“We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it.”
Her statement that traditional public schools should be held to the same accountability standards as charter schools seems clearly to mean that traditional school districts should respond to market forces, too — just like charters.
That may be as close as she has come since being education secretary to suggesting that if she had the power, she would dismantle traditional school districts. And that’s why I found that statement of hers so telling.
(Correction: An earlier version incorrectly attributed the state where Rosa DeLauro was elected. It is Connecticut.)