Everyone has a right to their own opinions. This statement applies to billionaire Republican Betsy DeVos as much as any American. Nonetheless, Mrs. DeVos’s record as an aggressive lobbyist of tax-subsidized private education and her open hostility to public schools raises obvious questions about her qualifications to be Secretary of Education, for which she has been selected by Donald Trump.
Mrs. DeVos’ use of her large fortune to promote vouchers and unregulated charter schools in her home state of Michigan is hardly a secret. She has been a major funder of the Great Lakes Education Project, an organization committed to sheltering the charter school industry from undue public oversight. She and her husband have been major supporters of taxpayer-subsidized school vouchers, spending over five million dollars in support of a ballot initiative to make vouchers legal in Michigan through a revision of the state’s constitution. And she has consistently attacked public education because it is, well, public.
In spite of a few bumps in the road (the pro-voucher referendum lost by a landslide), the DeVos family can feel pleased by the results of its two decades of activism. They have been perhaps the major force in bringing about the deregulation and partial privatization of Michigan’s education landscape. Unfortunately, because the privatization has been accompanied by an almost total lack of transparency, the state’s citizens have little idea of how their tax money for non-public schools is being spent. And for many parents, children, and teachers, the changes have brought chaos with no corresponding improvement in quality. Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press, who is not normally predisposed to oppose charter schools (he sends both of his children to one of the better ones), uses terms like “wild West”, “free-for-all,” and “illusion of choice” to describe the educational situation in Michigan.
It goes without saying that any Secretary of Education needs to be concerned about more than ideology and pet projects. Students who go to public schools in the U.S. make up approximately 85% of the total. Any competent Secretary of Education must deal open-mindedly with public as well as non-public education and, at the very least, retain a balanced approach. Given Betsy DeVos’ controversial background, the Senate Health and Education Committee will need to hold her feet to the fire in the confirmation process. Following are some of the kind of questions that might be asked:
1. The annual DPK/Gallup poll consistently (here, here, and here) shows large majorities of Americans supporting their neighborhood public schools. It shows Americans’ strong opposition to taxpayer-subsidized vouchers for private schools. And it shows Americans strongly preferring working to improve their public schools rather than replacing them. How would you respect these mainstream views?
2. Some states have public school systems that rate highly by international standards. Studies show that Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, and several other states are competitive with some of the highest scoring countries in the world. Are you open to studying their success stories as a way of improving the nation’s public schools?
3. Public schools have long been required to be accountable and transparent to taxpayers. Yet many reformers seek to exempt charters, also funded by taxpayer dollars, from the same standards of accountability and transparency. Most charters are either for-profit or run by private management companies. Why shouldn’t these entities reveal the salaries of their top executives, the rent they charge for school buildings, competitive bidding practices for services or lack thereof, and other matters of possible abuse? And why shouldn’t charters be required to adhere to standards of academic performance in the same way as public schools?
4. This fall, the NAACP, which has long been open-minded about charter schools, called for a moratorium on opening more of them. One of their major concerns was that choice in many communities has helped to perpetuate, and even accentuate, de facto segregation. This is because it has caused a form of self-segregation where whites have used so-called choice to flee integrated schools. If this is indeed true, how would you respond to it?
5. And finally, how transparent do you intend to be as a federal administrator and what kinds of benchmarks would you have to allow the public to both understand your goals and assess your furtherance of those goals?