'Betsy DeVos: a fierce advocate for choice who will face a fight with Congress and unions to push through reform'

24th November 2016 at 23:43
Betsy DeVos, education secretary, Donald Trump
Like Donald Trump, incoming education secretary Betsy DeVos believes school choice will transform America's mediocre public school system, says Harvard professor Paul Reville. But with a lack of evidence to support its effectiveness she may have to find other answers.

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The appointment of billionaire philanthropist and ardent school choice advocate, Betsy DeVos, as education secretary indicates that President-elect Trump intends to make good on a campaign promise to give parents more power over where their children go to school.

When and how this is to be achieved remains to be seen. What role the Secretary designee will have in shaping those policies will become clearer in due course, but her views on the subject of school choice are well known.

Ms DeVos, a conservative, Republican activist, has been one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates for empowering families to choose schools outside of the mainstream system. Driven by dissatisfaction with the performance of traditional public schools and a growing intolerance, shared by Mr. Trump, with the status quo in education, Ms DeVos has donated millions and led a number of organizations, like the American Federation for Children (which she founded, funded and chairs) and focused on this cause of expanding the range of choices open to families. She has been especially interested in extending this to low income families, to leave the mainstream system and take their education dollars to charter, private, for profit and parochial schools. She has been a fierce advocate for school vouchers.

Charter school record

Ms DeVos is a native of Michigan and a highly influential figure in that state. Michigan’s school choice options are confined to charter schools, but the performance of these schools has been poor while the oversight weak to non-existent, leading to pervasive abuses particularly in beleaguered places like Detroit.

Secretary designee DeVos has been an advocate for vouchers and for expanding charters and choice in Michigan, yet she has resisted provisions designed to stop poorly performing charters from expanding. Eight out of 10 charter schools in MI perform below the state average; 70 per cent of Detroit’s charter schools rank in the bottom quarter of MI public schools. 

Michigan’s approach to charter schools - permissive authorization, more than 75 per cent of charters run by for profit corporations and weak accountability and oversight - has been disastrous for many of the state’s most disadvantaged students, caused a dip in overall education performance in the state and served as an embarrassment to the charter school movement nationally.  While there are a few strong charter schools, Michigan is, quite simply, a case study in how not to do charter schools. 

Education was not a priority for Candidate Trump who rarely commented on the topic and provided little in the way of specifics on the few policies he did propose. He was fond of denouncing “failing government schools”, Common Core (which Ms. DeVos seemed to support at one point, recently shifting her position) and the US Department of Education. 

Trump’s campaign website did feature an all out endorsement of dramatically expanded school choice, especially for the economically disadvantaged. Trump’s conception, now reinforced by the DeVos appointment, promotes choice, broadly construed, to authorize charter schools, vouchers and opportunity scholarships including public, private, for profit and maybe even religious schools. Despite a lack of any substantial evidence of these policies leading to educational improvement at scale, Trump and DeVos seem to view choice as the transformative strategy to improve educational performance.

Opposition from Congress

But, it won’t be a slam-dunk. A Republican Congress will be sympathetic to the general idea of expanded school choice, but the Trump Administration is unlikely to get carte blanche to implement just any approach for expanding choice. Some Republicans and most Democrats are likely to balk at Trump’s proposal to re-purpose $20 billion in Title I federal education funding to advance school choice policies in the states. 

There will be disagreements on including private, for profit and religious schools in school choice plans. Vouchers, frequently rejected by US voters, will cause deep disagreements as well. Unions will vigorously oppose a Trump choice agenda, and they have recently been effective at setting back choice expansion measures in some states. 

Secretary DeVos will lead a department that her president once threatened to eliminate or severely cut back. Congress, through the recently passed Every Child Succeeds Act, has made it clear that future Departments of Education must play a less muscular, less activist role in education ceding power to the states and localities.  

Small government Republicans don’t want the feds telling states what to do on a whole range of matters, choice included.  And after all, only eight per cent of education spending derives from the federal government, so even if all that funding were turned toward choice, it wouldn’t buy much unless state and local policies changed dramatically. Trump hopes the $20 billion in federal choice investments will yield $110 billion in complementary state investments. We’ll see.

Choice, as a general concept, can be useful and constructive in education. We need choice and competition in what has for too long been a monopolistic sector. However, the devil is always in the details of how choice is established and regulated. The evidence strongly suggests that in places like Massachusetts where choice schools are subject to meaningful accountability, some forms of choice can have real benefits for students, especially those who have been historically underserved. 

At the same time, in places like Michigan and Arizona where the approach to opening up choice has been a Wild West version of an unregulated free market, the results have been highly disappointing, giving school choice a bad name. 

Secretary designee DeVos and President elect Trump may come to see that choice is not a “silver bullet” but one strategy among a set of systemic reforms needed to boost performance in a mediocre US public school system. To get choice right, they will have to carefully thread needles of substance and politics.   

Paul Reville is the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration and the founding Director of the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.  He is a former Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.



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