What Betsy DeVos Means When She Says ‘Public Schools’
Betsy DeVos once called public schools a “dead end,” but now that she’s U.S. Secretary of Education, she’s suddenly all for them.
At least that’s what she claims now.
During her nomination process, numerous reporters noted DeVos’s obvious bias against public schools. As education journalist Valerie Strauss reported on her blog at the Washington Post, DeVos “made some controversial statements” about public schools, “calling the traditional public education system a ‘dead end.’” Strauss noted DeVos had once said, “government truly sucks.”
But now she claims to be all for public schools, at least according to reports on her recent speech to a conference of big city school leaders. “I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating,” Education Week reports, “I support great public schools.”
Has DeVos had a sudden change of heart? That’s doubtful.
First, recall her first visit to a public school shortly after taking office. After her brief tour of Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, DC, DeVos castigated teachers for being in “receive mode … waiting to be told what they have to do.”
So what does her claim of a new-found fondness for “great public schools” really mean?
What Does Devos Mean By ‘Great Public School?’
First set aside the squishy modifier “great.”
There is widespread disagreement on what a “great” school is and how you can tell a school deserves that modifier.
Many states that were coerced into imposing school rating systems to supposedly determine, in an objective way, the quality of schools are in the process of dumping those rating systems. Recently, Michigan, DeVos’s home state, got rid of its rating system.
So what does DeVos mean by “public school?”
It turns out that’s becoming a squishy term too, at least if school choice advocates have their way.
Are Private Schools Public?
As NC Policy Watch, a left-leaning group in North Carolina, reports, the Tar Heel state has been targeted by school choice pressure groups to re-define what it means to be a public school.
The effort, according to education reporter Billy Ball, is “geared toward rebranding for-profit virtual charters and private school recipients of taxpayer-backed vouchers as public schools.”
Ball points to out-of-state school choice proponent Public School Options as an instigator in a campaign to advocate the state’s controversial online charter school, operated by private for-profit company K12 Inc., that’s been “troubled by high dropout rates and flagging academic numbers in its first two years of operation.”
Ball writes, “Public school supporters say the new push … is a misleading new tactic that seems intended to reclassify for-profit virtual charters and private schools as public institutions.”
Similarly, the Florida school choice advocacy group RefinED contends that school vouchers, which allow parents to transfer students to private schools at taxpayer expense, make private schools part of the public school system. The group’s advocacy draws from recent think tank pieces and other sources to argue for “a new definition of public education, which is publicly funded and publicly accountable — and encompasses private schools.”
The intent here is to make you believe that private online schools and voucher funded schools are public schools just because they get public money.
Charter School Slippery Slope
Anyone who has been paying attention to the growth of the charter school industry could see this coming from a long way off.
For years, charter school advocates have insisted on calling their schools public schools.
But charter schools fail the test for what constitutes a truly public institution in many ways.
In a policy brief from the National Education Policy Center, “The Business of Charter Schooling: Understanding the Policies that Charter Operators Use for Financial Benefit,” Bruce Baker and Gary Miron detail how the very structure of the charter schools makes them very different from public schools.
Charters generally aren’t subject to the same disclosure laws as public officials. They can outsource school operations to private entities that can evade transparency laws for open meetings, public access to records, and financial disclosures. And charter organizations often claim exemptions to constitutional (and some statutory) protections that are customarily guaranteed to public school employees and students.
In my own report about charter operations in North Carolina, I find these schools regularly mask how their charitable dollars are spent and how much they profit from related real estate deals and education management firms. A law professor I interview argues that these schools are likely not in compliance with nonprofit law.
These important differences between charter schools and traditional public schools are not generally understood or appreciated by even the most knowledgeable people, which is why charter advocates put so much energy and resources in marketing their operations as “public” schools.
Now their argument is revealed as a slippery slope to claim any private operator can be a public school simply by getting public funds.
Parallel School Systems
None of the options school choice advocates promote – charter schools, voucher supported private schools, online schools operated by private companies – are part of a truly public school system.
They are instead, parallel school systems – each necessitating separate layers of bureaucracy and oversight and each siphoning money out of the taxpayer supported school system.
“When it comes to the education of a child,” DeVos said in her address to urban school leaders, “I am agnostic as to the delivery system, or the building in which it takes place. If a child is able to grow and flourish, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.”
That might sound like a really nice idea.
School choice proponents like DeVos often argue that all that matters is whether students who attend charters, online schools, and private academies do well on standardized tests and that parents are generally satisfied with these choices.
But this argument ignores the tax-paying public that deserves to know whether those outcomes are being achieved without wasting our public dollars, which more often than not, they probably are.