One of the most disturbing things about the Trump administration is its antipathy toward public schools.
Perhaps you remember the president’s mini-rant in his inaugural speech about an “education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”
Well, Trump’s choice for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is responsible for Michigan’s charter school boom, which currently costs the state about $1.1 billion a year. A 2014 investigation by the Detroit Free Press found myriad examples of “wasteful spending and double-dipping.” Thanks in large part to DeVos’ lobbying in the Legislature, there’s virtually no oversight. So much for the young and beautiful students.
Take that for a rant.
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DeVos is stupendously rich and a longtime crusader for charters, vouchers and using federal funds for religious education. She was once the Michigan Republican state chairwoman, a fact completely unconnected to the $200 million or so her family has donated to the party. She’s used all that clout to make Michigan a model of how not to improve public education.
“I’m amazed at how many people on the street are saying, ‘Please, don’t let her be in charge of education,’” said Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the committee that’s considering DeVos’ nomination, which is adorably called Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). It’s not particularly astonishing that a Democratic senator would hear complaints about a Republican president’s nominees. But it is sort of remarkable how much ire, wrath and terror this particular one is causing. You’d expect everybody would be focused on the proposed budget director who wants to cut Social Security and failed to pay taxes on his baby sitter’s salary.
The committee is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the nomination. So far there’s not much sign of Republican defections, even though DeVos’ appearance before it was a disaster. The chairman, Lamar Alexander, desperately tried to throw himself in front of the train wreck. But it was hopeless, even before DeVos said that guns in school might be necessary “to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Poor Alexander, who was once secretary of education himself, has an excellent reputation for bipartisanship. But there he was, limiting his members to five minutes worth of questions each and refusing to allow a second round.
In the short time allotted, the committee did manage to learn that DeVos doesn’t understand federal laws on educating disabled students and that in all her years working on school reform in Detroit, she has never asked any public school principals whether they had enough resources.
We have two problems here. One is that DeVos is obviously unqualified. While it was nice to learn that she “mentors students,” that’s not really a great preparation for running a 4,400-employee organization with a $68 billion budget. She has never actually worked in a school system or managed a large institution – she and her husband became billionaires through the old-fashioned strategy of having stupendously rich parents.
DeVos’ big selling point for Republicans is her manic devotion to charter schools. There are, of course, some great charters around the country. But there are also some terrible ones, and she is deeply unenthusiastic about any system that would weed out the losers.
This would be the second problem.
DeVos seems to be a particularly big fan of for-profit schools. There’s nothing more disturbing about the school-choice movement than its infatuation with private enterprise. Running schools like a business (and, of course, driving away the teachers unions) is supposed to create more efficiency. But mainly, it creates more income for management. About 80 percent of the charters in the Michigan system are for-profit, and the Free Press investigation found that the charters were generally spending more on administration and less on the classroom than traditional districts.
The DeVos family has invested in a company called K12, which runs online charters and has a history of wooing urban parents by suggesting that their kids will be safer going to school in the living room. The Walton Family Foundation, a huge supporter of school choice in general, funded a recent study that determined that if the virtual charters were grouped together as a single school district, “it would be the ninth-largest in the country and among the worst performing.”
At the hearing, Sen. Tim Kaine (wow, seems like a long time since we were thinking about Tim Kaine) asked whether DeVos would insist upon “equal accountability” for all schools that receive federal funding “whether public, public charter or private.”
“I support accountability,” said the nominee. This went on for some time, but she just would not go for that “equal.”
Finally, Kaine volunteered that he thought all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be equally accountable, and he asked if DeVos agreed.
“Well, no,” she replied.