Two ads have been running on television for days now in support of Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire tapped by President Trump to be education secretary. The ads began amid an unprecedented battle over her confirmation, with the Senate expected to vote Tuesday.
The ads, put out by a group run by former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, are what you’d expect from a pro-DeVos ad: Democrats angry that Trump won can’t stand her, and her opponents don’t want equal opportunity education for all students like she does. But there’s wording at the end that is interesting.
Here’s the 30-second ad.
And here’s the sentence, spoken by someone doing the voice-over, with the revealing language:
DeVos believes in giving families a choice: charter schools, online schools, parochial schools and outstanding public schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded. That technically makes them public schools, even when they are run by for-profit companies that make a lot of money from them, as many do. Charter school supporters are quick to say that charter schools are public when advocates for traditional public schools accuse them of operating like private schools because they aren’t accountable to the public in the same way.
But here, in an advertisement for one of the leaders of the school choice movement in the country, produced by a firm whose president is pro-choice, the language separates charter schools from public schools. It also says that she believes in giving families a choice of “outstanding” public schools, but she doesn’t qualify the charter schools in the same way — or, for that matter, the online and religious schools.
This is the kind of language that infuriates advocates for public education who oppose DeVos, believing she would privatize public schools. She has said she would support them.
The charter school sector is riddled with problems in states that have lax oversight laws, and studies show that charters don’t do any better overall, when it comes to standardized test scores, than traditional public schools.
Virtual charter schools, which educate less than 1 percent of the schoolchildren in the United States but get a great deal of attention, are a particular problem. A 2015 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University — which is funded in part by pro-charter foundations — found that students enrolled in them learn significantly less on average than students at traditional public schools, with online charter students losing an average of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math during the course of a 180-day school year. Yes, that means that when it comes to math, it looks like the kids didn’t attend school.
Yet the ad only qualifies “public schools” as those DeVos supports.
The mention of parochial schools refers to DeVos’s avid support for school vouchers and voucherlike programs which use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition. It is worth noting that the foundation that DeVos founded, the American Federation for Children, released a 2016 report in which it ranked private school choice programs — but only included those that allow students to use public money to attend religious schools.
This may seem like a purely semantic issue, but in this world, semantics are highly revealing.