The Schools Betsy DeVos Wants Parents To Choose

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited a classroom at a private, religious school in Florida last month. (Photo: AP)

The Schools Betsy DeVos Wants Parents To Choose

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos finally found a public school she could visit where there wouldn't be protests. It's on a military base, safely inside the compound of Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos finally found a public school she could visit where there wouldn't be protests. It's on a military base, safely inside the compound of Ft. Bragg in North Carolina.

As a local news outlet reports, DeVos used her appearance at Kimberly Hampton Primary, a school operated by the Department of Defense and funded by the federal government, to make her usual pitch for "school choice," in this case, in the form of vouchers parents can use to withdraw their children from public schools and send them to private schools at taxpayer expense.

For DeVos to use this visit to a public school as an opportunity to tell parents they would do better for their kids by sending them to privately run schools suggests her leadership will continue to advocate for funding more alternative schools rather than for supporting traditional ones.

But as her administration encourages parents to leave public schools, what types of schools would she prefer parents choose instead?

Based on other schools DeVos has chosen for her itinerary, the possibilities are truly frightening.

DeVos Does CARE

After the Ft. Bragg gig, DeVo's next stop is CARE Elementary School in Miami, Florida.

CARE is a private school, which DeVos has a well-known preference for. Also, DeVos may want to showcase the school because its name, CARE, stands for Christian Academy for Reading Excellence.

DeVos's belief in using education as a way to "advance God's Kingdom" is well documented.

As Kristina Rizga reports for Mother Jones, the lengthy philanthropic record DeVos and her husband have amassed over many years shows "the couple's clearest preference is for Christian private schools."

CARE elementary certainly fits that profile. Students at CARE, according to the school's handbook, "Attend weekly chapel, they are taught Christian principles with love and respect, and they are exposed to the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Prayer is part of the CARE experience."

On its website, CARE says the school admits students of "any race, color, national, and ethnic origin" and "does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national, and ethnic origin." Discriminating based on religion is notably absent.

Since the school's opening in the fall of 2015, it has gotten significant praise from school choice advocates in South Florida, including the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which endorsed DeVos's nomination.

FEE was founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and has received generous support from DeVos and her foundation. DeVoss has also served on its board of directors.

But what's most notable about CARE Elementary, is how it's funded. Although the school is private, it's completely free.

How can a private school be tuition-free?

Religious Education At Taxpayer Expense

According to FEE's review of the school, "Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship Program is a dominant factor in CARE's ability to offer quality education at no cost to families." (emphasis added)

DeVos has often praised Florida's tax credit scholarship program.

This program, and others like it, offers tax subsidies to wealthy people in exchange for their donations to private school scholarships. As Carl Davis explains at The American Prospect, these programs let states use private citizens as "middlemen" in a give-away scheme that ensures wealthy people pay less taxes and private schools get public funds.

The Florida program was initially promoted in 1998 to state lawmakers by a venture capitalist, according to a report from the Florida League of Women Voters by Sue Legg.

When the tax credit scheme was challenged as unconstitutional, Legg explains, DeVos paid a million dollars in 2016 to send thousands of children to the state capital to rally against the suit. The state Supreme Court declined to rule on the case in 2017.

Since its inception, the main success of Florida's tax credit program has been its ability to send public funds to private religious schools like CARE Elementary. As Legg reports, 82 percent of the funds stemming from the program go to religious schools.

The give-away could be partially justified if students taking advantage of the program performed better academically. They don't.

Legg's analysis finds, while ten percent of students benefiting from the scholarships "gained more than twenty percentile points on a nationally normed test, fourteen percent lost more than twenty percentile points."

But if CARE Elementary sounds like a less then desirable choice for American taxpayers and families, the next school on DeVos's itinerary is arguably worse.

DeVos Visits A SLAM School

Next on DeVos's Magical Education Tour is a special kind of charter school, also in Miami.

SLAM Miami a charter school in a chain of charters focused on "Sports Leadership and Management" (hence the name). The schools are most notable for their association with the rapper Pitbull.

"Pitbull (Armando Christian Perez) is the latest in a long list of celebrities lending their star power to the flourishing charter school movement," reported NPR when the school debuted.

The school "has a vocational bent as a way to hook kids for whom school is boring," Pitbull explained to a reporter for the Huffington Post. "They're already labeling me 'Mr. Education,'" he said.

Since Miami SLAM debuted, more SLAMs have opened in West Palm Beach, Tampa, and Las Vegas.

While Pitbull may like the idea of being known as Mr. Education, he's most well-known for his misogynistic lyrics. As the Independent reports, at least one popular female DJ has found the lyrics unbearably offensive and has taken a public stand against playing the music.

The article notes, "Pitbull's song 'Timber', which reached number one last year, includes the lyrics: 'I have 'em like Miley Cyrus, clothes off/twerking in their bras and thongs... face down, booty up.' He also sings: 'She say she won't, but I bet she will.' Other songs include the lines 'I like that when you fight back' and 'Shake that shit bitch/And be off in the club with a hard-ass dick.'"

That sounds like a less than ideal figurehead to have at the helm of an education institution for children, but the management company operating the school may be an even bigger cause for concern.

SLAM charters are in a web of the Mater charter school chain operating in multiple states. SLAM, Mater, and other charter school chains are operated by the Academica education management group, South Florida's largest education management organization (EMO) with schools in multiple states.

Schools connected to the Academica EMO have a disturbing reputation for shady financial dealings.

Schools As Real Estate Schemes

Whether DeVos knows it or not, SLAM charter's link to Academica may connect it to an investigation by the federal agency she directs.

As the Miami Herald reports, the Education Department's Inspector General Office is auditing Academica "as part of a broader examination of school management companies nationwide."

Specifically, the auditors found that schools in the Mater network operated by Academica, which SLAM is also part of, entered into leases with development companies tied to South Florida real estate mogul Fernando Zulueta who "founded the original Mater Academy in 1998 and was a member of its governing board until Sept. 2004.

"Two of the leases were executed while Zulueta sat on the Mater board," the Herald reports. "In addition, Mater Academy hired an architectural firm from 2007 through 2012 that employs Fernando Zulueta's brother-in-law, Florida state Rep. Erik Fresen."

Fresen, another Herald report notes, is a former lobbyist and employee of Academica.

The conflicts of interest likely run deeper. A previous series of reports by the Herald found, "Cozy political connections, favorable tax treatment and little public oversight has allowed Miami charter school chain Academica to exploit Florida's laws, build a successful chain of schools, and profit off taxpayer dollars."

Highlights of the series of reports include details about millions in management fees from these schools going to the parent company (all at taxpayer expense), the exorbitant above-market lease payments Academica charges its schools (also paid by tax payers), and the schools' track record for enrolling disproportionately lower shares of black, poor, and disabled children.

It's not at all clear whether SLAM charters are plagued with the same sort of conflicts of interest that other Academica operated schools have. But for DeVos to associate herself with these schools and pose them as better choices for parents than local public schools is concerning.

Whose Choice?

As DeVos concludes this itinerary of school visits, she will have visited at least as many private and charter schools as she has visited traditional K-12 public schools in her tenure as Education Secretary so far.

It's somewhat understandable DeVos would seek out schools where she is least likely to encounter protestors. During her nomination process, she was the "most jeered" of Trump's cabinet picks, according to the New York Times. Since her confirmation, she's done little to improve on her image. In fact, she's the most unpopular official in President Trump's administration, according to a recent online survey.

But the schools she chooses to visit and what she says to the educators in these schools continue to convey the message that rather than fulfilling her obligation as a public servant to support public schools, her agenda is mostly about distributing scarce resources for education to other types of schools she would prefer parents choose instead.

The fact these schools may have a religious agenda, may rely on schemes to redirect tax money to private pockets, or may be designed to put education funding at risk to privateers and real estate deals seems not to bother her one bit.

That's not parents' choice. It's her choice.

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