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To Trump’s education pick, the U.S. public school system is a ‘dead end’

Here's what you need to know about Betsey DeVos, the billionaire donor who became President Trump's education secretary. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Many people in the education world are trying to learn as much as they can about Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be education secretary. They are reading articles she has written, checking political donations she and her family have made, assessing her lobbying efforts and her role in education policy — and they are parsing speeches she has made, such as a very telling one in August 2015 at the SXSWedu convention in Texas.

In the speech (see video below) she explains her education vision, which she says is meant to bring a wide array of “choice” to parents but that critics say amounts to privatizing America’s public education system.

She made some controversial statements, such as calling the traditional public education system a “dead end,” and labeling as “immoral” President Obama’s decision to send his children to private school while trying to end a voucher program that Congress forced on the District of Columbia. Voucher programs use public money to pay for private school tuition for children deemed eligible. And she also essentially trashed the entire D.C. public school system, saying:

“America falls further behind, too many kids are denied an opportunity, too many kids get substandard educations, the status quo remains, change is thwarted, and everyone loses. Let me give you a real world example of what I’m talking about, and I would like you to think about this as if we were talking about your own children. Here are your two choices. Alpha School is a high-performing school, with graduation rates ranging from 70-90 percent, depending on the year. Beta School is a low-performing school, with graduation rates hovering around 50 percent. If you were given the choice between Alpha School and Beta School for your children, which would you choose? If you chose Alpha School, then in Washington, D.C., you chose a private or charter school for your kids. If you chose Beta School, then in Washington, D.C., you chose the traditional public school.”

Actually, contrary to her notion that all D.C. traditional public schools are low-performing, the District has a number of high-performing schools. Meanwhile, there are some charter schools — which are publicly funded but operate outside the traditional district — and voucher schools that are low-performing. The public school district’s graduation rate isn’t 50 percent and hasn’t been for years; in 2011, the district says, it was 53 percent, but by 2015 it was 64 percent and in 2016, 69 percent. Some D.C. public schools graduates go to the nation’s best public and private colleges — and many of the District’s schools have been innovating for years.

The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment. Ed Patru, a vice president at DCI Group who identifies himself on emails as spokesman for “Friends of Betsy DeVos,” a loosely affiliated group of her supporters and allies, said in an email:

As you know, nominees aren’t granting interviews by protocol and out of deference to Transition. . . . The speech was great and it was incredibly well-received. Donald Trump’s entire campaign was premised on the notion that government isn’t working — be it on the economy, on jobs, on foreign policy or on education — and that a new approach is needed. The American people overwhelmingly agreed.

He also said in reference to DeVos’s comment that “government truly sucks”: “I can assure you that both her direct talk and her larger sentiment is pretty commonplace outside of the 202 area code.” (202 is the area code for Washington.)

What public education advocates might find as the most jarring of her comments is what she said during a discussion of what she sees as the education reform battle now playing out across the country:

“It’s a battle of Industrial Age versus the Digital Age. It’s the Model T versus the Tesla. It’s old factory model versus the new Internet model. It’s the Luddites versus the future. We must open up the education industry — and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry — we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators.
This is how families without means will get access to a world-class education. This is how a student who’s not learning in their current model can find an individualized learning environment that will meet their needs.
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. As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Wikipedia, or Uber. We won’t see any real innovation that benefits more than a handful of students.”

DeVos’s characterization of the public education system as an “industry” is in line with the corporate education reformers — including those in the Obama administration — who believe public schools should be viewed as businesses with competition from the outside.

This is in contrast to the notion that America’s public education system is a civic institution — the country’s most important, in fact — that can’t be run like a business without ensuring that some children will be winners and others will be losers, just like in business. Supporters of public education acknowledge the system has failed many students but largely believe the solution is to improve the public schools to address what students really need to succeed.

DeVos has not said she wants to eliminate traditional public schools, and in fact included them at the top of a list of what she says would be an “open system of choice.” Also included are publicly funded charters, private and parochial, and virtual schools. But she repeatedly makes comments seen as denigrating the quality of traditional public schools.

At one point in this speech, she said:

“If you live in an area with quality public schools, you can most likely get a reasonable education. In most cases this means you do not live in an economically depressed area.”

The thrust of her speech is that traditional public schools are simply not as good as charters or privates.

And that’s why many public school advocates are concerned about the nomination of the woman who called the traditional public education system in the United States a “dead end.”