Don’t forget! Senate is still voting on Betsy DeVos on 1/31

While originally writing this post, I quickly realized I needed to ask teachers their perspective, since they have lived the effects of these issues. I asked Kelsey Clodfelter–who has taught in a charter school and a traditional public school in Chicago and now mentors first year teacher for Teach for America in Minneappolis–and Christina Clark, an educator in Hillsboro, North Carolina, to weigh in. Kelsey edited for accuracy and clarity and Christina offered direct comment to the Discussion section. 

The Issue

Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, has sparked stark opposition from the left. DeVos is an advocate (read: lobbyist) for “school-choice,” as its proponents like to call it, but you may also know it as the charter system or school vouchers. Mrs. DeVos has, along with her family’s lobbying PAC and foundation, has supported and bolstered the charter program in her native Michigan. Detroit has the largest urban network of charter schools and is consistently one of the worst districts in the country. The G.O.P. supports the appointment in large part because of the move it would make towards drastic reform of the american educational system and move towards more state control of the system.

Mrs. DeVos has also not indicated that she is opposed to guns being allowed in schools, despite being directly asked.

Context

Central to this debate are charter schools and vouchers, which are often described interchangeably, though they are not. John Oliver did a great piece on them last year, but here’s the basic distinction:

Charter school — a school that, like the public system,  receives government funding but is not subject to most (depends by state) of the local and state educational regulations imposed on schools.  They can be established by a joint granting body like a school board and an outside group, like a collection of teachers and parents. The National Education Association reports that charter schools receive $30 billion annually.

School Vouchers — “state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private school rather than public school. Private schools must meet minimum standards established by legislatures in order to accept voucher recipients. Legislatures also set parameters for student eligibility that typically target subgroups of students. These can be low-income students that meet a specified income threshold, students attending chronically low performing schools, students with disabilities, or students in military families or foster care.” [National Conference of State Legislators]

 

Discussion

We’ll start off with the points Christina made, and then move on to revelations offered from the Detroit Free Press.

From Christina Clark:

I started writing something about Devos but couldn’t narrow down what I wanted to say. She’s being appointed in the same vein as other appointees–meant to destroy the institutions of government from within with incompetence…All of these incompetent appointees will distract from Trump’s incompetence and greed as he secures his business interests and stops investing in American citizens.

I know that my colleagues and I are specifically concerned about the guns in school policy. Any weapon in a school can end up in the hands of an unhappy student (or teacher). But we see the larger issue of school choice as a drain on public schools in an effort to end services provided for poor and disabled children.
Charter schools, by design, funnel taxpayer money away from public schools and into private ones. High preforming charters give lower income neighborhoods access to more resources and opportunity, but they are fraught with corruption and loss. The theory in part is an answer to the waste and achievement gaps seen in the American Public School system with that resounding, confounding solution that a school should be run like a business. Sound familiar?

A graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids,  Mrs. DeVos has never attended public school nor did she send her children to one, does not have a degree or background in education or pedagogy, so at the very least a legitimate indictment against her is that she has no first-hand experience with the system that evidence suggests she wants to weaken in favor of charters.

DeVos and her family operate one of the largest charter lobbies in the country, contributing millions upon millions of dollars over the past 20 years to reduce regulation and oversight and increase the quantity and amount of federal funding of charter schools in Michigan. As a result, Michigan has a huge number of failing charter schools and no way to shut them down or cease funding to them based on performance. Even in the face of this demonstrable fact, her support for a Michigan-style school choice system as the superlative option remains unshaken. I haven’t been able to suss out whether she financially benefits from the proliferation of charter schools.

Just look at Detroit to see the harmful effects of this purpose-built unchecked system. The city boasts the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools, so while there is no shortage of schools for parents to send their children to, “what remains in short supply is quality,” according to Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson.

“In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently,a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.

On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.”

Action

Just three republicans need to vote against her to stop her confirmation. Call, email, and tweet at your senators. Here’s one script:

I’m writing to express my disapproval of the nomination of Betsy DeVos. She has no experience in directing dynamic educational systems and displayed a lack of even a basic understanding of the issues the department tackles. She says she supports children, but her actions don’t fully support it or respect viable, objective data that can be used to help her in her job. .

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