It wasn’t all that long ago that it would have seemed impossible for anybody who labeled the U.S. public education system a “dead end” to be nominated as U.S. Secretary of Education, much less get support to be confirmed. Not anymore. Betsy DeVos, a Republican billionaire from Michigan who public school advocates see as hostile to America’s public education system, is likely to be confirmed despite a rocky Senate committee hearing, where, under caustic Democratic questioning, she seemed not to know basic education issues.
If DeVos does become education secretary, Democrats will of course blame the Republicans. DeVos is, after all, a Republican who has donated millions of dollars to Republicans, was selected to be education secretary by a Republican, and would win confirmation thanks to the Republican majority in the Senate.
But the record shows that Democrats can’t just blame Republicans for her ascension. It was actually Democrats who helped pave the road for DeVos to take the helm of the Education Department. Democrats have in recent years sounded — and acted — a lot like Republicans in advancing corporate education reform, which seeks to operate public schools as if they were businesses, not civic institutions. (This dynamic isn’t limited to education, but this post is.) By embracing many of the tenets of corporate reform — including the notion of “school choice” and the targeting of teachers and their unions as being blind to the needs of children — they helped make DeVos’s education views, once seen as extreme, seem less so. Historically, Democrats and Republicans have looked at public schools differently.
Democrats have traditionally been defenders of public education, seeing it as the nation’s most important civic institution, one that is meant to provide equal opportunity for marginalized communities to escape poverty and become well-informed citizens so they can become part of America’s civic life. Public education was seen as a civil right. Republicans have looked at public schools less as vehicles of social equity and more as places that are supposed to prepare young people for college and careers, an endeavor that should be measured with the same types of metrics businesses use to gauge success. Some Republicans have looked at public schools with suspicion, in some cases seeing them as transmitters of liberal and even godless values.
That’s why it was unusual when, in 2001, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat, gave critical support to the new conservative Republican president, George W. Bush, in passing a new education law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). A bipartisan, they said, was to make sure public schools attended to the needs of all students, but the law actually became known for creating new “accountability” measures for schools based on controversial standardized test scores.
Despite the bipartisan NCLB stance, pushing school choice (first mentioned in a major party platform in 1992) was still not a popular idea. That was clear in a Dec. 3, 2002, speech given by DeVos’s husband, Richard, with whom she had worked to push through Michigan’s charter school law in 1993. Richard DeVos, at the conservative Heritage Foundation, spelled out a state-by-state strategy to expand vouchers and school choice by rewarding and punishing legislators. He told supporters to call public schools “government schools” but urged that they “be cautious about talking too much about these activities” so as not to call attention and garner opposition.
But that began to change as school choice and other corporate school reform measures began to spread, with then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, elected in 1999, leading the way. His administration:
- Instituted a standardized test-based accountability system called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which later became so unreliable that superintendents rebelled against it.
- Designed a statewide “report card” for schools that assigned them A through F grades based largely on test scores and pushed charter schools — which operate on public funds but outside traditional school districts — and vouchers and online learning.
- Successfully did its best to export the “Florida Formula” to other states, growing the corporate reform movement.
The “accountability” system Bush supported and other states embraced in turn created environments in which charter schools could spread without much or any oversight. While some charters have been successful — and some perform better than traditional public schools — the wider charter sector became riddled with failing schools and scandals involving for-profit charter operators. But school choice became a mantra. The Democratic Party was undergoing structural changes as their traditional bastion of support, labor, was diminished by the changing economy. Democrats began looking more to Wall Street and the superwealthy for funding. During the past three decades, as this PostEverything article explains, the wealthiest Americans have shifted their donations, giving more to Democrats than Republicans — with young technology moguls leading the way.
These tech leaders believed in big data — and the notion that just about everything can be measured — and that love for data took hold in education policy. Economists offered up “value-added measurement” models to evaluate a teacher’s impact on student’s academic achievement by using a complex mathematical formula to tease out every other factor on a child, including how violence in their community affects their test scores. And the Obama administration loved it. A group called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), founded and supported in large part by hedge fund managers, was formed before the 2008 election. It embraced corporate reform and pushed school choice. It turns out that it accepted some money from a group DeVos founded, the American Federation for Children. Vicki Ballagh, a DFER spokesperson, said in an email that the amount was “negligible,” and teacher and blogger Mercedes Schneider reported that it was in the tens of thousands of dollars. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 gave school reformers an opportunity to remake the troubled New Orleans public schools as the city rebuilt, turning most of those schools into charters. Though the charter schools have struggled to excel — and were accused of failing to properly serve students with disabilities — the experiment was declared a huge success anyway, proof that “choice” worked.
By the time Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it was clear to many that NCLB had been poorly written and had goals that were impossible for states to meet. During the transition between winning the 2008 election and taking office in January 2009, Obama’s education team had been led by Linda Darling-Hammond, then a Stanford University professor who is an expert in teacher preparation and educational equity. Many in the education world thought she would be named education secretary and that Obama would continue in the Democratic tradition of supporting unions and making educational equity for all students a key goal. But Obama was intrigued by elements of the corporate reformers’ tool kit; in his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama had already revealed his interest in how corporate reformers thought about policy. During his 2004 Senate campaign, he said:
“Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means — law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks.”
Instead of picking Darling-Hammond, he selected Arne Duncan. Duncan, a former head of Chicago Public Schools, talked about improving public schools to help every child, as traditional Democrats did, but his approach was in the corporate reformer model.
Under Duncan and Obama, the Education Department pushed the federal education agenda even further toward market-based reforms than Bush had. They used the promise of federal funds to push states to expand charter schools — paying more attention to growth than oversight — and to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, even though assessment experts said it was an unreliable method of evaluation. They also pushed the Common Core State Standards, with the help and influence of people like Bill Gates, a movement initially embraced by members of both parties but that eventually became the object of scorn from all parts of the political spectrum, for a variety of reasons.
Parents, educators, students and activists rebelled against high-stakes standardized testing. The two big teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, both major supporters of Democrats, came to oppose Obama’s education policy so much that members approved resolutions against Duncan in 2014. George W. Bush, the Republican, had expanded the federal role in education and Obama went much, much further.
Democratic support for market forces in public education reform softened the ground for programs, such as school vouchers. Obama and many other Democrats don’t support using public money for private and religious school tuition — but Obama’s opposition seemed like a policy asterisk compared to the Republican-sounding policy initiatives he did champion. Some Democrats, such as Thomas McDermott Jr., the mayor of Hammond, Ind., came to agree with Republicans like DeVos who said that it was wrong to separate charter schools from vouchers as school choice measures (even if many states have constitutional bans on using public money for private education). For many Democrats, expanding charters was the priority, not forcing strong oversight over scandal-ridden charter sectors in some states.
On March 4, 2011, at Miami Central High School in Florida, an unlikely trio took the stage — Obama, Duncan and Jeb Bush. The Democratic administration parted ways with Bush’s agenda when it came to vouchers and tax credits, but the umbrella of school “choice” was embraced. So at Central High on that day, Bush said he was honored to welcome Obama and Duncan, and added: “Mr. President, as you have said, education achievement is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. It is an issue of national priority.” Obama then praised Bush as a “champion” of school reform. While they were at Central High, thousands of people in Madison, Wisconsin, were protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on unions and workers. Neither Obama nor Duncan went to Madison. In 2013, DeVos gave an interview to Philanthropy Roundtable, noting:
“We believe that the only way that real education choice is going to be successfully implemented is by making it a bipartisan or a nonpartisan issue. Until very recently, of course, that hasn’t been the case. Most of the Democrats have been supported by the teachers’ unions and, not surprisingly, have taken the side of the teachers’ unions. What we’ve tried to do is engage with Democrats, to make it politically safe for them to do what they know in their heart of hearts is the right thing. Education should be nonpartisan. “I wouldn’t underestimate the growing interest in educational choice among Democratic leaders. I think we’re going to see increasing numbers of Democrats embracing educational choice programs at a gubernatorial level. We are certainly seeing it happen at the state-legislator level.”
Growing numbers of Democrats joined with Republicans in state legislatures to approve charter school laws and voucher or tax credit programs. When Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was mayor of Newark, he was a strong corporate school reformer, supporting choice and vouchers. He appeared at the May 2016 policy summit of DeVos’s American Federation for Children, which he called “an incredible organization,” and he urged the attendees to “stay faithful to the work we are doing.” Booker came out before DeVos’s confirmation hearing saying he had “serious early concerns” about her becoming education secretary but that sounded to many as much about politics as DeVos’s education philosophy. But now some Democrats who were entirely or largely on DeVos’s education reform page are having second thoughts. Booker said he had some “serious” concerns about the Trump education agenda. DFER, after initially putting out one statement that tried to separate their pleasure at the DeVos nomination from their dislike of Trump, issued a second one that said: “From what we know about the education agenda of President-elect Trump and Mrs. DeVos, we are deeply troubled.” Then, on Inauguration Day, it put out a statement saying it could not support her nomination.
Democratic governors embraced elements of corporate reform too, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy. Even liberal Jerry Brown of California, who started a few charter schools when he was mayor of Oakland, wouldn’t sign legislation to bring more accountability to the state’s troubled charter sector.
So now we have Democrats worrying about DeVos’s tenure at education, assuming she gets confirmed. They said at her confirmation hearing that they believe she is unfit for the office, someone who has never had anything to do with public education and isn’t versed in major issues the department oversees. They aren’t worrying for nothing, but they can’t put all the blame on Republicans.