There has been a persistent theme in the media, explicitly, and in scholarly studies, implicitly, that economic class is much more important as a basis for analysis than race. This is, of course, a Marxist position, one clung to by the Communist Party of the United States to its dying day.
But the basis of American society, as even some Communists admitted, is division by race. This was embodied in the original wording of the Constitution, with its three-fifths rule for counting enslaved Africans and their descendants. It dominated debates in the Senate until the imposition of the “gag” rule, barring discussion of slavery; led to the Civil War, and as Jim Crow, determined social structures and social relations in much of the country until the 1960s.
Despite Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act and similar legislation, de jure Jim Crow did not vanish; it was transformed into “Jim Crow by another name,” primarily through the operation of schools and prisons. The stronghold of what Michelle Alexander branded as “The New Jim Crow” is the “black belt” of counties in the former Confederacy, running from Norfolk Virginia to, say, Waco, Texas, with satellites in various urban centers, especially in the line from Louisville, Kentucky to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but also including Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC and New York.
Among the northern urban centers, New York City, because of its size and cultural and political significance, is of particular importance. New York City has an African American population of 2,089,000, a larger number than any other city in the country, more than in many states. How well do the New York public schools perform their task of educating all children, including Black children?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is the standard by which education is measured in the United States. Among NAEP’s many assessments, that for reading is particularly crucial as an indicator, particularly reading at grade 8, when the schools have had sufficient time to overcome many issues arising from home and community.
Results for grade 8 reading for New York City show that 46 percent of White students are Proficient and above (compared to 42 percent nationally) as are 15 percent of Black students (compared to 15 percent nationally). Forty-four percent of Black students in the city’s public schools and 15 percent of White students were at the Below Basic (difficulty reading) level in 2015.
New York City’s public schools educate three times the percentage of their White students as their Black students to read at grade level in the crucial grade 8 year. And they leave nearly half of Black middle school students unable to read easily, therefore unlikely to graduate from high school “college and career ready,” unlikely to qualify for or to obtain middle class jobs and incomes.
The failure of the New York City public schools to educate Black students is particularly troubling for male Black students, only 9 percent of whom are at Proficient or above in grade 8 reading in 2015. Which means, of course, that 91 percent are not.
Student educational attainment in New York is also sharply divided by income. Thirty-six percent of White students from families living in or near poverty, and therefore eligible for the National Lunch Program, in the New York public schools reach the Proficient and above levels in grade 8 reading. Other White students, from more prosperous families, read at grade level 57 percent of the time by eighth grade. Among Black students, 13 percent of those eligible for the National Lunch Program read at or above the Proficient level, while 18 percent of those from more prosperous families do so. A White student from a comparatively prosperous family in New York is more than four times as likely to be brought to grade level in grade 8 reading than a Black student from a low-income family.
Notice, however, the different sizes of the gaps between students from relatively poor and relatively prosperous families among Black and White students. It is 21 percentage points among White students, five among Black students. Or, White students from more prosperous families are 58 percent more likely to read at grade level than White students from less well-off families, while with Black students it is 38 percent. NAEP’s records for New York City assessments of this type go back only to 2003, but if we analyze those, we find that the family income differences for White students are pretty steady, over time, but for Black students they are narrowing, from 13 percentage points in 2007 to 5 percentage points in 2015. The reading ability of New York City’s Black middle class students is declining, according to NAEP, while that of Black students from lower income families is remaining relatively flat.
How can this be interpreted? New York is one of the nation’s most segregated cities, as are its schools. While since the (Lyndon) Johnson administration formal housing segregation has been illegal, in New York City even middle class Black professionals are ghettoized. Therefore, their children go to the same schools as do the children of the poorest, single parent, families. In theory, this should not matter. In theory, all schools would provide educations of equal—high—quality to all students. Now, there’s this bridge in Brooklyn I want you to look at . . .
If we are done with that, it is obvious that all but 15 percent of Black children (and 9 percent of male Black children) in New York City are being provided with inferior educational opportunities because they are Black. And of those, comparatively successful students, many are the children of school teachers and other highly educated parents, in effect, home schooled: the home environment making up for the deficiencies of the school (rather than the idealized opposite).
The racism of the New York City public school system is more or less overt, as witness the unspeakable racial imbalance of the system’s selective high schools, which year after year admit so few Black students that those could be accounted for by the number of children of Black United Nations diplomats. The outcome of all this is that the 65 percent of Black students entering grade 9 in New York City who were given diplomas four years later include about 40 percent who could not read at grade level when they were in grade 8 and probably could not read eighth grade material when they were given diplomas. More than one-third of the system’s Black students do not graduate from high school, two-thirds or more of those who do are far from “college and career ready.”
If a system fails in its professed purpose—say, educating children—more often than chance would indicate, and continues to do so over time, it is probable that it is, in fact, achieving its actual purpose, in this case, perpetuating racism.
Your editor had little hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would demonstrate competence — as she didn’t do during January’s hearing before a U.S. Senate panel — after last month’s confirmation by the full body. Nor did I think she would be able to stand up successfully and strongly on behalf of our most-vulnerable children against those in the current administration who mean to do harm against them.
Based on events of the last two weeks, both my suspicions and those of other reformers have been confirmed. Which is why the movement (and those within it who are still committed to building brighter futures for all our children) will have to work zealously on the behalf of our youth.
The DeVos regime demonstrated a stunning lack of basic public relations savvy earlier this week when the Department of Education issued a press release on the current administration’s new executive order on Historically Black Colleges and Universities that served as a tool for its messaging on expanding school choice.
The agency could have simply stated that the executive order, meaningless as it is (because no additional money would be provided to those institutions), is an important move to make on Black History Month because it affirms the important role universities such as Howard and Wilberforce have played in helping generations of Black people access higher education and oppose the racialism that is America’s Original Sin. Instead, in a politically tone-deaf manner DeVos and her staff used it opportunistically to tout the administration’s other priorities, declaring that HBCUs “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice” and “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality”.
The outrage over the remarks, both from traditionalists and many civil rights-oriented reformers, as well as Black people in general, could have been easily anticipated. After all, HBCUs didn’t come to existence because of the desire for higher-quality options, but because southern universities (especially public universities funded by the tax dollars of African Americans) wouldn’t allow young Black adults to sit in their classrooms. More-importantly, while a case can be made for the role of HBCUs as a form of choice in higher education, Black History Month is just not the time to do that. All DeVos did was make it even more-difficult for Black reformers and others to support the expansion of high-quality school options our children need and deserve.
All of this could have been avoided if one of DeVos’ appointees made a call to any number of Black school reformers, especially those who aren’t tied to the American Enterprise Institute or the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A call to DeVos’ predecessor, John King (now at the Education Trust) or even yours truly would have sufficed. Or better yet, talk to any of the Black people working in the Department of Education’s headquarters on Maryland Avenue. This didn’t happen, because of incompetence in handling public relations (a key tool for the agency’s task of overseeing federal education policy), along with a lack of concern for the families and communities of Black children.
The good news, or so it seems, is that DeVos didn’t repeat that error in this morning’s USA Today op-ed touting the meager efforts done so far by the current administration.
Meanwhile DeVos’ inability to stand strongly on behalf of the most-vulnerable became clear last week when unsuccessfully fought now-embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the rest of the current administration over its move to repeal the Obama Administration’s executive order requiring traditional districts and other public school operators to allow transgendered children to use bathrooms of the sex with which they identify.
The directive, which was issued last year after North Carolina interfered in the decisions of cities and districts by banning any accommodation of transgendered youth, was helpful in protecting those children from bullying, but engendered the ire of those ideological conservatives who both oppose gay rights as well as felt that the Obama Administration shouldn’t have enforced the federal government’s obligation to protect the civil rights of school-age children.
As Politico‘s Caitlin Emma reported, DeVos pushed for a “more-cautious” approach on rolling back the guidance, asking for a comment period that would allow gay rights activists and others to at least offer feedback before the administration made its long-stated goal a reality. One source told Emma that DeVos mindful of the criticism she received during the confirmation for her family’s support of gay conversion therapies and opposition to gay marriage, didn’t want to roll back the rules at all.
But she could not beat back Sessions, long an opponent of enforcing the federal government’s civil rights role, who wanted to roll back the rules before the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal in G.G. v. Gloucester County, which involves a district’s decision to not accommodate a 17-year-old’s use of the men’s restroom at a local high school. At the end of the day, the current administration once again proved itself unwilling to do the right thing by vulnerable children.
The inability of DeVos to fight strongly on behalf of our children in this role should surprise no one. As Dropout Nation noted back in November, DeVos refused to condemn then-President-Elect Donald Trump for his campaign of race-baiting and bigotry. Instead of condemning him for speaking ill of the families of Muslim, Black, and undocumented immigrant children, she expressed her willingness to work with the administration. Any effort she may mount on behalf of vulnerable youth was bound to be weak.
The fact that the current administration is hostile to the communities and families to which these children belong also makes it difficult for even the few good people who may be within it to stand up on their behalf. After all, one of the first actions this administration took was to essentially bar Muslim refugees from seven countries (including children fleeing war-torn Syria as well as five-year-olds seeking surgery and medical help) from entering the United States. The move, since struck down by a federal appellate court panel, is part of the long-term ideological goal by President Trump’s chief advisers, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, to rid the nation of immigrants and socioeconomic minorities who aren’t Caucasian. [The executive order enacting the Muslim ban also barred refugee children from Central American nations from entering the country.] American public education will be as much a front as immigration in their racialist efforts.
The current administration isn’t standing alone in this. As seen in November, there is a significant number of Americans, most of them White (and sadly, many of them calling themselves Christian), who are perfectly happy to support those measures. As much driven by the desire to support policies that harm their fellow human beings as well as by their nativist fears of America becoming increasingly more diverse and less-White, they welcome the current administration’s efforts.
Also in the current administration’s amen corner: Many of those who call themselves conservative school reformers. While those so-called reformers may attempt to distance themselves from the worst of its more-noxious ideas, they are perfectly willing to support any effort by the administration to roll back the federal role in education policy (so long as it continues to support the expansion of school choice). This includes the Obama Administration’s efforts to stop districts and charters from overusing out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that damage the futures of black and other minority children.
For the reformers who remain focused on building brighter futures for children, the fight will only get harder as the current administration remains in office. They cannot expect DeVos or her appointees, regardless of any personal relationships, to be supportive in any way that will actually be helpful. So the movement must focus on advancing systemic reform in spite of DeVos’ presence or that of the administration.
This starts with the regulatory process, which includes administrative rule-making and the various comment periods during which regulations and other policies are red-lined (or rewritten and amended). The current administration will work hard to shut out civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers. But those reformers can easily use laws requiring public input to expose any efforts to weaken xisting systemic reforms as well as beat back any efforts to dismantle important data systems such as the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Concerns about the future of the latter is one reason why a coalition of groups, including Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, Teach for America and the Education Trust, issued a letter this week demanding that the data system remains comprehensive and intact.
None of what has been done so far by DeVos or this administration has been shocking or surprising. Nor should reformers be stunned. It will only get worse. Which means reformers must get to work.
There have been, and no doubt, are now taking place, many studies of how the results obtained by the nation’s public charter schools differ from those of other public schools with similar student populations. Depending on the study you cite, either charter schools do better than traditional districts in improving student or do no better. But one thing is known: None of these studies compare charter school students with those in traditional public schools who did not attempt the lottery.
The most-recent of these studies, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found in its Urban Charter Schools Report in 2015 that “urban charter schools on average achieve significantly greater student success in math and reading, which amounts to 40 additional days of learning growth in math and 28 days of additional growth in reading.” This isn’t to say charters are doing well everywhere, which CREDO points out throughout its study; these are averages, after all. In fifteen of the 41 regions in math and 18 of the 41 regions in reading there was no difference or the charters did less well then traditional public schools.
A crucial issue that I have not seen explored is that of the possible causal factors in student learning that differentiate charters from traditional public schools. That is, there seems to be an implicit assumption that the differentiating causal factor is the sheer fact of chartering.
There is something to this. One of the motivations for charters, in the first place, was that the administrations of at least some districts were so incompetent (to be polite), that they interfered with the operations of their schools. There is also the common American ideology that competition is beneficial, that if a school independent of the district administration did well, then others would imitate its innovations and all boats would be floated with the rising tide.
However, the situation today is increasingly one in which there are charter school operators, or as I call them, systems of charter schools, so that the comparison is not so much that between independent schools with adventurous teachers and teacher leaders and schools chained to district administrations, but between systems of charter schools, on the one hand, and traditional school systems on the other. This changes what it means for a school to be a charter, as opposed to a traditional public school. Instead of meaning that decisions will be school-based in the one and system-based, in the other, it means that either is possible for each, or, as likely as not, decisions will be system-based in both.
In our search for those independent variables that might be causal for differences in student outcomes between charter schools and traditional public schools, we might look at one aspect of the situation in New York City. Among the various systems of charter schools operating in New York, the KIPP group, with six schools in the city, has a good reputation and good results. KIPP has a strong system-wide culture of support and in-service professional development for its teachers and school leaders. In New York City, on average, 45 percent of the students in KIPP schools were judged Proficient on the state’s grades 3-8 English Language Arts tests in 2016, as compared to 24 percent of the students in the four geographical school districts in which they were located.
So far, so good.
Let’s do some poking about in the weeds to see if we can find out what it is about the KIPP charter schools to which we can attribute these results. First, student factors: In New York City, about one-third of Black and Latino school age children live in poverty. That figure rises to 50 percent for Hispanic families in which a woman is the householder and there is no husband present. Thirty-eight percent of Latino residents of the city speak English “less than well” (as do seven percent of Black residents). Eighteen percent of Black adults and 34 percent of Latino adults have not graduated from high school.
The KIPP schools have racial and ethnic enrollments nearly identical with those of the local traditional public schools, as well as nearly identical percentages of students with disabilities. They have a higher percentage of English language learners, an identical percentage of students eligible for free lunches (a measure of poverty) and more than twice the percentage of the slightly less impoverished group eligible for reduced price lunches. Their class sizes are slightly, but not significantly, larger than those in the local traditional schools.
However, there are important differences to be found in the data about teachers. Eighteen of the KIPP teachers have been teaching three years or less, as compared to 14 percent of the teachers in the local traditional schools. Among teachers with five years or less of experience, the turn-over rate in the KIPP schools was 43 percent and overall it was 42 percent, while in the local traditional schools annual teacher turnover rates were 24 percent and 19 percent respectively. In other words, every two years each KIPP school had an almost entirely new, younger, teaching staff, as compared to between every four and five years for the local traditional schools.
The situation in regard to qualifications is even more dramatic. Thirty-seven percent of the KIPP teachers have no valid teaching credential, 37 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 38 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 37 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Just 13 percent have pursued graduate degrees. The comparisons with the teachers in the local traditional schools are stark: just two percent of those have no valid teaching credential, 17 percent are teaching outside their certification areas, 15 percent of classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers and 16 percent are taught by teachers without appropriate certification. Forty have pursued their own studies to the M.A. level and beyond. In sum, the local traditional schools are staffed with teachers who are better educated and better credentialed than those in New York City’s KIPP charter schools.
Why then do the KIPP schools have better results than the local traditional schools?
One theory would be that education and credentialing do not make better teachers and staff stability does not matter for the quality of the education students receive. There is enough data to suggest this – and teacher quality is the most-critical factor in how schools educate children. But it only one factor..
The second theory is that charter schools can sort out children they don’t want to serve through application processes that don’t apply to traditional public schools. The problem with that argument is that charters such as those run by KIPP also must go through a lottery process with various safeguards which ensure that the socioeconomic profiles of the students are nearly identical to that of districts. These lotteries exist because there are far fewer charter schools than there are traditional public schools.
The third theory, one that interests me, is that the determination of parents and legal guardians to get their children into charters is a filter that differentiates kids in charters from those in traditional public schools. There are, no doubt, many Black and Hispanic New York residents who have not graduated from high school, who do not speak English well, who are living in poverty, who will file a KIPP charter school application for their children. It is equally likely that there are those, and others more fortunate, who will not.
Few doubt that the concentrated parental attention on education that many middle class children receive is a factor in their educational success. In places where, as in New York, many traditional public schools fail to educate their students to their potential. For parents looking for a way out, they notice the success of charter systems like KIPP and apply to their lotteries. We might then guess that this has become a feed-back loop: increasing numbers of students with highly motivating parents yield ever better educational outcomes and attracting ever more students with highly motivating parents.
Of course, the motivated parent argument is an old one and we must be careful in considering it. It is often an excuse for traditional public schools to not properly educate children, especially those Black and Latino, with the fewest personal resources. At the same time, we must keep in mind that in the case of charter schools, the potential of those schools to provide more children with high-quality education can be limited by the lack of support for those with the fewest resources: Thee youth who don’t have parents or permanent legal guardians or whose parents and guardians are struggling too mightily with other issues (including deportation) to go through the charter school application process.
Benevolent social systems are limited in their impact when they cannot adequately help the child with the fewest personal resources. [They are also limited when there aren’t enough of them in the first place — and there aren’t enough high-quality public education systems of any kind.] Choice certainly has value. But so does ensuring that even the neediest children can gain the knowledge they need and deserve so they can survive once they leave schools.
What we have right now are collections of public education systems that fail to achieve the goal of providing all children equal opportunities for a high-quality education, a goal essential to the wellbeing of an increasingly sorely-tried American Republic. These issues aren’t an indictment of charter schools. But their existence, including their success, does highlight our failure to address this persistent inequity.
There should be no surprise that Betsy DeVos was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education this afternoon by the Senate. Nor should anyone be surprised that her confirmation required a vote by Vice President Mike Pence in his role as ceremonial leader of the federal upper house. DeVos has managed the astounding feat of gaining more votes against her confirmation than any previous appointee to the post.
Also not shocking, of course, is the visceral reaction to DeVos’ confirmation from those who supported and opposed her, especially conservative, centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reformers in an increasingly divided movement.
On one side, American Federation for Children, the school choice advocate DeVos previously chaired before her nomination, declared that her confirmation is “a time of opportunity and transformation”, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education sent out tweets thanking Senate Republicans (other than Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) for voting for her. Meanwhile Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute celebrated DeVos’ nomination, accusing opponents of her nomination of “being unfair to her”.
On the other side, DeVos’ immediate predecessor as education secretary, current Education Trust President John King, hoped that DeVos would “prove us wrong”, while House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Democrat Bobby Scott declared that she “failed to make a credible case” for getting her job. Catherine Brown, the education czar for the Center for American Progress (which has emerged as the leading school reform outfit opposed to DeVos’ confirmation — and garnered the criticism of conservative reformers for its stridency), proclaimed that DeVos’ confirmation was an example of how the Amway heiress’ fortune bought her support despite being “Unprepared, unaware, and unqualified.”
Your editor has already spent months explaining why DeVos shouldn’t be Secretary of Education. Certainly her strong support for expanding school choice is much appreciated here on these pages. But transforming American public education requires more than championing choice. A Secretary of Education, who runs the agency charged with ensuring that all children, especially those black and brown, gain high-quality education must be strident and vocal against those who want to subject the most-vulnerable to the rarely-soft bigotry of low expectations, oppose bigotry even from her counterparts within an administration, and have curiosity and grasp of the policy and practice issues within American public education. DeVos has exhibited none of this so far, and unlike King, your editor has no expectation that this state of affairs will change.
This, by the way, extends to other appointees whom DeVos is bringing to the Department of Education. Certainly some of the people coming to work for the agency — including former Thomas B. Fordham Institute staffer Michael Brickman, and Matt Frendewey (who was running American Federation for Children’s communications department) are people who have proven their commitment to helping all children succeed. But past performance isn’t enough — especially when choosing to work for an administration that has denigrated the families of immigrant children, Latino children, and those of the Muslim faith. Your editor prays for them to do right by all children — and so should you. They will need every prayer for discernment we can give.
But in any case, DeVos now holds the office. Which means that reformers must continue to do the hard work transforming American public education regardless of what she and her appointees do — and, given the Trump Administration’s professed and public bigotry against those who aren’t white, in spite of them.
This starts by remembering our mission: Building brighter futures for every child, no matter who they are or where they live. As civil rights activists of the last century understood, there will always be administrations, elected officials and interest groups who will be hostile against helping all children succeed. What matters more is that we work smartly, strategically, and stridently for children as well as the families who love and care for them.
It starts by playing the Capitol Hill political game. Over the next four years, there will be regulations that will be drafted and finessed through administrative rulemaking and red-lining; legislation that will be deliberated and debated; and meetings that will be held quietly and privately. Reformers must get into every step of these processes, and master every arcane rule that can either stop legislation from passing, or lead to its passage.
This means remembering that the most-important battles over overhauling American public education lies not in Washington, but in the statehouses and local communities throughout the nation. Now, more than ever, reformers must build stronger ties to families and communities (including immigrant households, single-parent families, grandparents, and minority households).
It also means working more-closely with Black Lives Matter activists and others working to reform the criminal justice systems that also harm so many of our children. And it even means working with immigrant rights groups and branches of the American Civil Liberties Union that are fighting stridently against efforts by the Trump Administration to deport undocumented immigrants as well as working to protect children covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Finally, it means advancing the solutions needed to help every child succeed. From overhauling how we recruit, train, manage and compensate teachers, to expanding choice and Parent Power, to advancing stronger accountability (and ensuring that every institution and adult is providing high quality education to our children), there is much to be done, much we can do, and not one minute to waste.
Along the way, there will be divides between various camps in the reform movement. In some cases, reformers will have to agree to disagree. Other times, there will be open conflict. Some within the movement will leave it because they feel that colleagues with different ideologies are on the wrong side. This is to be expected. What must be accepted among all reformers is that there will be conflict. What needs to be done is to make those conflicts productive so that it crystallizes, clarifies, reveals, humbles, and creates so that we can build better worlds for our children.
Now that the battle over DeVos’ confirmation is over, let’s continue working for brighter futures for every child. Especially in this age, they need us to do all we can for them.
By tonight, we will know whether Betsy DeVos will be confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education. But it has become clear that there is significant opposition to her possible tenure — and she has proven that she is undeserving of the job.
As you already know, the Amway heiress’ effort to win confirmation hit snags within the past week. First came the rather narrow 12-to-11 approval last Tuesday by the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee after a rancorous executive session that featured Ranking Democrat Patty Murray sparring with the committee’s chairman, Lamar Alexander, over his casting a vote for the nominee on behalf of colleague Orrin Hatch (who wasn’t present at the time).
Then last Wednesday, two Republicans on the committee, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, announced that they would vote against DeVos’ confirmation, effectively creating a 50-50 tie in the full Senate and casting doubt about her chances of winning. As you would expect, movement conservatives such as the editors at National Review accused both of doing the bidding of the National Education Association, which, naturally, opposes DeVos’ confirmation.
While conservative reformers such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute worked to spin the news as a sign that DeVos would gain confirmation (a funny thing given that they have been wrong about so much else when it comes to congressional votes), news that other Republicans, including Nevada’s Dean Heller, were still undecided and leaning towards voting her down cast new doubts on her chances.
Then on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that a vote on DeVos’ confirmation set for today was being delayed until Tuesday. The stated reason was to give Republicans a chance to spend time with donors at an out-of-the-Beltway event. Left unsaid: That other Republicans, including those in states with influential American Indian tribal populations opposed to DeVos such as Oklahoma and Alaska, are likely under pressure from those tribes to vote her down. That there are plenty of Senate Republicans, more-concerned about beating back Democrat efforts to stop the confirmations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch, willing to give opponents an easy victory by letting DeVos lose her bid is also a factor.
Meanwhile DeVos has taken more hits, many of them self-inflicted. Just as the Senate education committee voted on her confirmation last Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that several passages from DeVos’ response to questions posed by Murray were cribbed from various sources, including an Obama Administration report. For someone being put at the helm of overseeing American public education, the allegations of plagiarism against her (and, given reality, staffers who wrote the response for her) angered even more people than necessary. At the same time, DeVos’ response to Murray that she would not require linking data on charter school performance to their operators alarmed reformers who are looking to improve the quality of student learning.
The chance of DeVos being confirmed today is still rather high. After all, even with a tie vote, all the Republicans and President Donald Trump need for DeVos’ victory is for Vice President (and President of the Senate) Mike Pence to show up and cast a vote. Which, of course, he will. There’s also the fact that DeVos’ nomination is scheduled before that of Sessions, giving the latter the chance to vote for her. But the fact that Senate Republicans waited so long to vote on her confirmation is one sign that there is little unity within the caucus behind her tenure.
As your editor expected back in December, DeVos’ nomination has divided the school reform movement as bitterly as every other discussion of late.
Falling in line with their ideological fellow-travelers, conservative reformers have largely lined up behind DeVos, arguing that any opposition to her has been driven by the smearing of her record and her character as well as what Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute calls a lack of civility. Given that many conservative reformers are recipients of donations from DeVos and her family’s foundations, this is to be expected.
Centrist Democrats and civil rights-oriented reformers, on the other hand, have raised concerns about DeVos’ competence and willingness to aggressive advance strong accountability. They have found themselves allied with opponents of school choice such as Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in opposing DeVos’ confirmation. The latest announcement came last Thursday when former Secretary of Education John King announced in his new role as president of the Education Trust that he and the organization actively oppose DeVos’ confirmation.
Meanwhile those outside of school reform have debated over DeVos — and their arguments have painted either side in a good light.
Allies of DeVos have argued that she would be a breathe of fresh air because she is an “outsider”. Yet in doing so, they fail to admit that her long (and largely beneficial) advocacy for advancing the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice, along with her role as a leading force in transforming public education in her home state of Michigan, makes her as much of an insider as AFT President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten. More-importantly, despite DeVos’ poor performance last month before the Senate education panel, they continue to dismiss legitimate criticisms of DeVos’ competence as being mere politicking.
On the other side, traditionalist arguments that DeVos will destroy American public education is absolutely silly. They are still stuck in the outdated notion that public education is about traditional districts and other bureaucracies, and refuse to embrace the concept of providing all children — especially those black and brown — with high-quality opportunities to learn regardless of the type of provider. They lambast DeVos for not sending her kids to traditional public schools while conveniently ignoring the fact that Former President Barack Obama himself didn’t do so either.
At the end of the day, the grandstanding of many DeVos’ allies and critics don’t matter. What does matter is if there are legitimate reasons to not confirm DeVos. From where your editor sits, there are more than plenty.
As I have noted back in November and December, DeVos would be taking charge of a federal agency that is charged with protecting the civil rights of children black and brown at a time in which the administration’s key leaders (including Trump and his consigliere, Steve Bannon), have demonstrated records of denigrating them and their families. No matter her assurances to the contrary, there is almost no way DeVos can enforce those civil rights responsibilities as written under the Every Student Succeeds Act, especially since it is likely that Trump will work to gut the agency’s Office for Civil Rights.
DeVos’ unwillingness to condemn the bigotry of Trump and his underlings (especially the failure immediately after his election last November to demand his apology for rank demagoguery against immigrant and minority children) means that she will be unreliable in overseeing the federal government’s role in protecting the educational civil rights of black and brown children. To expect DeVos to show courage for our most-vulnerable once she’s in office when she hasn’t done so thus far is pure folly.
Her opposition to last year’s effort in Michigan to bring stronger accountability to the Wolverine State’s charter school sector (as well as bring high-quality schools to areas of Detroit outside of the center city deprived of those options) is problematic to say the least. At best, the episode shows that she is far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability. Some of her allies will note that she supported requiring private schools in Louisiana taking in children in the state’s voucher program to take state tests, and that is admirable. But what an influential player does in her own home state matters more. On this front, she was more-willing to allow problems within Michigan’s charter school sector to remain in place.
Most importantly of all, DeVos has shown almost no knowledge or even basic curiosity about either the underlying causes of the woes within American public education or about what role the federal government can play in advancing systemic reform. Certainly your editor doesn’t expect an incoming Secretary of Education to know absolutely everything about the ins and outs of policymaking or practice. But that person should demonstrate basic knowledge about current teacher quality reform efforts; exhibit interest in how states are working to overhaul the recruitment and training of school leaders; understand the debate over overuse of harsh traditional school discipline; and understand why presidents since Ronald Reagan have embraced the concept of the federal government as a key lever in advancing systemic reform.
DeVos exhibited none of this during her confirmation hearing last month. What she did demonstrate, however, was her arrogance, her flippancy, and her lack of basic knowledge about education policy. The fact that she had to be lectured by senators on such matters as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is unacceptable for someone who is looking to oversee the most-important federal education in American public education. Put simply: DeVos doesn’t deserve the job, a point reformers who have opposed her confirmation have been making for some time.
If DeVos does get confirmed today, hopefully she will do better than what the record so far has demonstrated. If not, then it is an opportunity for conservative reformers and congressional Republicans to demand Trump to nominate a more-qualified candidate.