What Betsy DeVos Calls Education Transformation Is Actually Public Theft

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What Betsy DeVos Calls Education Transformation Is Actually Public Theft

The Trump administration's clear goal is to gut the nation's public school system. (Photo: woodleywonderworks/cc/flickr)

Betsy DeVos wants to give your tax dollars to private schools and businesses and tell you it’s an education “transformation.”

That’s the main theme of an address she gave this week to a conference held by the organization she helped found and lead, the American Federation for Children.

Declaring “the time has expired for ‘reform,'” she called instead for a “transformation… that will open up America’s closed and antiquated education system.” Her plan also opens your wallet to new moochers of taxpayer dollars.

By the way, AFC, according to SourceWatch, is a “conservative 501(c)(4) dark money group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues.” It also grew out of a defunct PAC connected to DeVos called “All Children Matter” that ran afoul legally in Ohio and Wisconsin and still owes Ohio $5.3 million for breaking election laws.

So DeVos had a supportive crowd for her speech, but what should the rest of us think of it?

The transformation she calls for seems to rest on the premise that, “It shouldn’t matter where a student learns so long as they are actually learning.” But what does she mean by “learning”? And what should the public expect about how its funds are being spent?

In kicking off her address (transcript here), DeVos thanked Denisha Merriweather for introducing her. Merriweather, as I’ve previously reported, often appears with DeVos at events extolling school vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools at taxpayer expense.

In Merriweather’s case, exercising school choice meant using Florida’s education tax credit program to attend a fundamentalist Christian academy that presents the Bible as literal history and science, teaches young earth creationism, and demeans other religions.

DeVos then quickly moved to the story of a recent graduate of a Catholic private school, Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who used that state’s voucher program to transfer from a public school to a private religious school at taxpayer expense.

Based on that student’s life story, DeVos declared, “Here in Indiana, we’ve seen some of the best pro-parent and pro-student legislation enacted in the country.”

Reporters at NPR recently looked at what “pro-parent and pro-student” policies have accomplished in Indiana and found the state’s voucher program, which DeVos is no doubt extolling, is essentially a coupon program for parents who already send their kids to private schools.

“More than half of all voucher students in the state have no record of attending a public school,” NPR reports. “Recipients are also increasingly suburban and middle class. A third of students do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals,” a proxy for poverty widely used in education.

Clearly taxpayers should be concerned about picking up the tab for an expense that many families seem to be able to afford in the first place. In fact, that’s a point conservatives frequently level in their claims of widespread welfare fraud.

But so long as students are learning, DeVos contends, what’s the beef? Well, evidence of these students actually learning by exercising their “school choice” is scant.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times cites a study which found Indiana students using the state’s voucher program to transfer from public schools to private schools voucher students “experienced significant losses in achievement” in mathematics and “saw no improvement in reading.”

But one thing Indiana’s voucher program certainly accomplished is to provide a huge cash infusion to religious schools. As Mother Jones recently reported, of the more than 300 schools receiving voucher money in the Hoosier state, only four aren’t “overtly religious.” The remaining four are for special needs students.

Another premise DeVos argues is, “Education should reward outcomes, not inputs.” But outcomes at what cost?

That’s a question many who disagree with DeVos’s preference for “high performing” charter schools have about her praise for school choice.

In her reporting on a supposedly high performing charter chain in Arizona, Carol Burris, an award-winning educator and leader of the Network for Public education, looked at the school’s supposed great outcomes and found a troubling backstory.

The BASIS Arizona charter chain, she found, “provides insight into how charter schools can cherry-pick students, despite open enrollment laws. It also shows how through the use of management companies profits can be made — all hidden from public view.”

DeVos counters any objections to her preference for school choice with the argument, “All parents instinctively know that their child should not follow the money – the money should follow their child,” which is a favorite phrase of the school choice crowd.

Here’s something else parents know: Kids don’t come with price tags. And educating the nation’s future workers, leaders, citizens, and artists has always been, and must continue to be, a communal enterprise shared by parents and non-parents alike.

In her efforts to create the education transformation she calls for, DeVos is supremely eager to “get Washington and the federal bureaucracy out of the way,” but still wants you to pay the cost of privatizing our schools. That’s not an agenda for better schools. It’s about stealing public money.

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

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