When Betsy DeVos isn’t busy making an embarrassment of herself … well, but when isn’t she doing that? Even leaving her gaucherie-laden confirmation hearing off the table – you know, the one where she didn’t know the difference between measuring growth and proficiency, and engaged in a silly moment about grizzly bears and guns on school campuses – she’s been busy tripping over her toes.
Officially confirmed as U.S. education secretary, she quickly praised historically black colleges and universities as pioneers of school choice. “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality,” she burbled.
Except, of course, that the success of these institutions of higher learning has nothing to do with school choice. They exist in the first place because black students seeking a college education had no choice.
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After her brief visit to a D.C. public school, DeVos, who’s never been an educator of any kind, nonetheless had the chutzpah to hold forth on what was wrong with the teachers there. They’re in “receive mode,” she asserted. “They’re waiting to be told what they have to do.”
DeVos hasn’t got a clue what the teachers there are or aren’t doing, and they were quick to tear her presumptuous gaucherie to shreds with facts about the innovative work they’ve been doing.
Then there’s embarrassment by association: The executive director of a school-choice organization founded by DeVos and her husband resigned this month after saying he wanted to shake a school official “like I like to shake my wife.”
During the quieter moments when DeVos isn’t residing in Blunderland, she’s plotting to save public education by making it as private as possible. In her view, school vouchers would save low-income students trapped in underperforming public schools.
The problems with this notion are nearly endless. Private schools don’t have to play by the same rules as public. They can generally refuse to offer services to special-education students, leaving the public schools to help students whose needs cost the most money, while they take the cheaper-to-educate crowd. They’re known to expel students who are performing poorly, or even over trivial disputes. Unlike public schools, they can insist on behavior contracts and parent involvement. And then after benefiting from all these advantages, they get to trumpet their superior test scores.
Except, it turns out, they can’t even do that.
A story in The New York Times reveals that private-school voucher programs around the country have been producing inferior results, according to a recent body of studies. In Indiana, under Mike Pence’s governorship, tens of thousands of students attended private schools through a voucher program. Their math scores dropped, and their reading scores stayed the same.
A study of Louisiana vouchers looked at students who had applied to private schools, but hadn’t made it in when the schools received too many applicants. Turned out they tested far better in reading and math in their public schools than the students who had gotten the vouchers.
Here’s a study funded by the Walton Family Foundation, big supporters of school choice, including vouchers, and a carried out by a pro-choice think tank, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Looking at an Ohio program, it concluded that students who attended private schools with vouchers did worse academically than similar students who remained in public schools.
I don’t expect little things like low performance and wasted dollars to stop DeVos’ voucher train. Grasp of facts and evidence hasn’t been one of her strong suits. That’s not such a big deal when it comes to her faux-pas-prone style. But it needs to be stopped when she’s on the path to harming public schools while giving low-income students an inferior education at taxpayer expense.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.