Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been pushing the expansion of school choice — alternatives to traditional public schools — for decades. You could say she has been playing a long game.
DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has publicly called traditional public education a “dead end,” says all parents should have educational choices for their children. Her critics argue that she has been trying to privatize public education, with her advocacy efforts having begun in Michigan and then moving to other states.
DeVos and President Trump have made clear that their top priority in education is to expand school choice, not continue the efforts of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to hold schools “accountable” largely through test scores. This post looks at how she has operated and what her ultimate goals seem to be. It was written by Carol Burris, a former New York high school principal who is executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education.
Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. She has chronicled problems with standardized-test based school reform and the school choice movement on this blog for years.
By Carol Burris
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is not always confused by the facts, such as when she said that historically black colleges and universities were “pioneers of school choice,” or that a school in Montana probably had a gun to protect itself from “potential grizzlies.” Her recent speech at this year’s convening of the American Federation for Children was no exception.
If you are not familiar with the American Federation for Children, you should be. SourceWatch tells you all that you need to know:
The American Federation for Children (AFC) is a conservative 501(c)(4) dark money group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues. It is the 501(c)(4) arm of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit group the Alliance for School Choice. The group was organized and is funded by the billionaire DeVos family, who are the heirs to the Amway fortune.
Yes, DeVos was right at home speaking to the organization.
In the speech, DeVos seemed to be trying to mask her hard-right agenda by sounding post-partisan, with a blue heart buried deep in a Republican red chest. She portrayed her thinking as progressive, and those who defend public schools as the enemies of children and worse. She skillfully wove this theme throughout the speech — calling those who resist her agenda “flat-Earthers.”
She told her audience that a Democrat advocated for the first voucher program in the nation. Annette Polly Williams, a longtime Democratic state legislator in Wisconsin, “bucked the system for the kids she loved,” DeVos said.
What DeVos left out is the inconvenient detail that Williams, who was black, later saw vouchers for what they were — an escape hatch from public schools that allowed wealthier, white children to attend private schools.
In her 2015 research report titled, “Opening Pandora’s Box: Polly Williams Doomed Partnership with the Education Privatization Movement,” author Rachel Tabachnick does a masterful job telling the story of Williams.
DeVos described Williams as an idealist who was willing to work with conservative groups in order to allow Milwaukee’s poor children to attend black independent schools. Williams saw vouchers as a limited program to give some choice to disadvantaged kids, while supporting the independent schools she believed in. But her allies had a more ambitious plan. A program for poor kids, for them, was merely the beginning.
As Tabachnick tells us, then Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson had assured voucher advocates that once the program began, it would be expanded. And that is exactly what occurred. Religious school were added. And then the cap on income was raised. Williams withdrew her support for the program, stating, “Eventually, low-income families would be weeded out due to the large volume of families wanting to participate.” Tabachnick tells us she objected to families who could well afford private school getting subsidies, even as funding was reduced for public schools. “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools,” she said.
As Williams spoke out against the program, her former allies took aim. She was denounced by the same folks who had previously put her on the stage of every conservative event, anointing her the “Rosa Parks of vouchers.” By 2013, a major pro-voucher donor, George Mitchell, shamelessly admitted that Polly Williams was used.
“Polly was useful to the school choice movement because of her race and party affiliation,” he said. In that same interview, though, he called her “a racist” and “irrelevant.”
Chicago community activist Jitu Brown has long called out the school choice movement’s pretense. Choice, according to Brown, is not about helping children of color, despite the claims of its proponents. Calling school choice “a scam” in segregated neighborhoods, he recently wrote:
Privatizers, such as the Great Lakes Education Project DeVos funded, play three-card monte with the public, utilizing political support, money and slick marketing to hide poor academic returns, increasing racial segregation and widespread corruption.”
Explaining the inequities that exist between wealthy and poor communities, he goes on to say:
But we understand that imposing failed, top-down corporate education interventions on communities of color is merely the status quo, amplified.
And that, of course, was what Williams came to understand. Vouchers for the poor were the gateway; they were never the goal. That same pattern of starting small and going big repeats itself over and over. Educational savings accounts, tax credit scholarships and the like begin with student groups that evoke public sympathy — students with disabilities, low-income kids, the children of parents in the armed forces — but the goal is vouchers for all.
DeVos and her allies are playing the long game. Each legislative season, the selected groups expand and the caps are raised. It happened in Indiana, where DeVos spoke to the American Federation for Children, and it is happening in other voucher states, as well.
There is no better example than Arizona. Vouchers, disguised as the Empowerment Scholarship Account program (ESAs), began 2011. The program was designed for special-needs students. Then it expanded — foster-care students, children of military families, students on reservations, or students living in districts with schools rated a “D” or an “F” were eligible, as well.
Are vouchers being used by disadvantaged kids hoping to escape “failing” schools? Not according to the Arizona Republic:
“More than 75 percent of the money pulled out of public schools for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program came from districts with an “A” or “B” rating, the analysis showed. By contrast, only 4 percent of the money came from school districts rated “D” or lower.”
And why should anyone be surprised? Families get 90 percent of what the district would have spent on their ESA debit card; the more affluent the district, the more money goes on the card.
In April, the Arizona legislature expanded the program, passing a bill allowing any student to apply for the debit card. Debit card funds can be spent in a variety of ways, with little oversight. The requirement is that parents not send their child to a public school and spend at least 25 percent of the money, but there is no requirement that students demonstrate what they have learned. When the expansion passed, DeVos tweeted that it was “a big win.”
As one looks across the voucher landscape, it is hard not to consider what Polly Williams, in her final years, came to believe: The ultimate goal of vouchers is not to give opportunity to disadvantaged kids, but rather to keep wealthier kids away from the kids that Williams cared about the most. Vouchers, after all, came into being in the South as a reaction to the integration of schools in the 1950s.
Polly Williams died in November 2014. Shortly following her death, Tabachnick tells us, she was memorialized as “the mother of school choice.” Who called her that only after she had died? Betsy DeVos, the former head of the American Federation for Children and now the U.S. secretary of education.