Your editor had plans to write about something else. But President-Elect Donald Trump’s move today to nominate consumer products heiress Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education requires me to comment. Under different circumstances with a different person as incoming president, it is likely I would politely commend her appointment. But in light of who is taking the White House in January, I can do no such thing.
Let’s start with this: At least on the matter of expanding school choice, the incoming Commander-in-Chief could have made a worse choice. DeVos has been one of the foremost philanthropists in advancing the expansion of vouchers, public charters and other opportunities for high-quality education. A longtime chairman of the American Federation for Children, DeVos has a long and admirable record of expanding school choice throughout the country.
Whether or not she would be strong on other aspects of reform, including overhauling school discipline and teacher quality, is an open question. Unfortunately, that she has flip-flopped on supporting Common Core reading and math standards that are helping more children succeed in traditional districts and charter schools. All in all, she is a mixed bag.
Beltway reformers, such as Chris Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers, have already issued the typical inside-the-Beltway statements declaring their interest in working with her. Traditionalists such as American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten decry her appointment, proclaiming that she’s the “most ideological, anti-public ed nominee” ever. Some reformers, most-notably Democrats for Education Reform and Teach For America, have correctly stood fast in not endorsing DeVos’ nomination because of Trump’s bigotry. [American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess, as myopic as ever on issues regarding poor and minority children, is particularly angered by TFA’s move, accusing the teacher quality reform outfit of not “pretending to be nonpartisan”.] And conservative reformers are pleased as punch.
Meanwhile school choice advocates, especially hard-liners who oppose any efforts by states to hold those programs accountable, think that DeVos’ selection could prove to be a boon for supporting the expansion of vouchers and charters at the federal level. They are especially hoping that she will implement the long-discussed plan among such advocates to voucherize Title I funding, allowing those dollars to follow children.
Could we see a stronger federal effort on the expansion of choice? Possibly. Maybe. But as a moral men and women dedicated to building brighter futures for all children no matter their background, you have to wonder at what cost?
After all, DeVos is joining an incoming administration whose chief executive has had a long and ignominious record of race-baiting, rank demagoguery against undocumented and documented immigrants (including accusing Mexican emigres of being “rapists), and has shown little concern for black and other minority communities. Over the past week, Trump has proven even more-pronounced in his bigotry, first by naming white supremacist Steve Bannon as his top White House adviser; and then nominating Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an opponent of all immigration with his own long history of bigotry, as U.S. Attorney General. Trump’s dedication to more-restrictive immigration policy — including a declaration to deport three million undocumented immigrants that include children already in public schools — and pronounced opposition to criminal justice reform effectively makes his administration an opponent of the very children DeVos is supposed to serve.
As the likely head of a federal agency that is charged with protecting the civil rights of children black and brown, DeVos will have to work closely with both Bannon and Sessions on enforcing existing policies as well as implementing any proposed effort to expand school choice. How can DeVos effectively expand choice for these children when the men with which she must work have demonstrated records of opposing them and their families? How can DeVos enforce the Department of Education’s civil rights responsibilities as written under the Every Student Succeeds Act when Trump is likely to push for the gutting of the agency’s Office for Civil Rights?
This isn’t just a moral issue. Black, Latino, Muslim, and other socioeconomic minority children make up half of the 50 million school-age children in America. In both the American South and western states such as California, they are the majority of children in public and private schools. The policies the Trump Administration will likely promulgate — especially on education — can damage their futures, put them on the path to poverty and prison, and destroy the communities in which they live.
Certainly DeVos will argue that she can help children while working for this administration. But the long history of American public education has proven over and over again that good intentions are slender reeds against the political machinations of the immoral. More than likely, DeVos will be a figurehead within the administration with little real influence on policy when it matters.
This includes expanding school choice. As mentioned, Trump has declared he supports voucherizing Title I funding, an idea championed by congressional Republicans that didn’t make it into ESSA last year. The challenges of making it reality still remain: That the dollars yielded from such a move would not be enough to help poor and minority families in choosing high-quality schools; that it would require congressional Republicans to write language forcing states to voucherize their own state funding systems (an idea that runs counter to the conservative demands that the federal government retreat from an active role in education policy); and that it would be opposed by suburban districts represented by those very congressional Republicans (as well as by urban districts represented by Democrat counterparts). Given the state of play these days on Capitol Hill, DeVos will likely talk a lot about choice without being able to actually help expand it.
Meanwhile DeVos’ long association with the school choice faction of the school reform movement may actually damage both. This is because DeVos’ presence essentially associates the laudable goal of helping poor and minority families gain access to high-quality educational opportunities with an incoming administration already associated with bigotry, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Certainly some reformers will argue that the laudable ends justify the means. But the ends are corrupted by the means, especially in the form of negative perception of those solutions by the very children and communities for which you proclaim concern. This will be especially troublesome for choice activists at a time in which it is becoming politically harder to make the case for expanding charters, charters, and other efforts.
Your editor cannot congratulate DeVos on her nomination. What I, along with other reformers such as Democrats for Education Reform, can do is pray that she does the right thing for all of our children, no matter who they are or where they live, in spite of being part of an incoming administration that has not one concern for them. And stand up against any efforts by the Trump Administration to damage their futures.
Read more of Dropout Nation‘s thoughts about DeVos.