Tuesday, February 7, 2017

NO on DeVos

"I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies." — Betsy DeVos, January 17, 2017, during her Senate confirmation hearings

BETSY DEVOS, who has never attended, worked in or sent her children to any public school, may be the most spectacularly unqualified cabinet post nominee we've ever seen, not just of those chosen by he-who-shall-not-be-named, but E-V-E-R.

Fabulously wealthy: her husband Dick DeVos was a CEO of the multi-level marketing giant Amway and her brother Erik Prince is the founder of the private security company Blackwater, and they've used no small portion of their money to pillage the Michigan public school system through their multi-million dollar financing of unregulated charter school development.

A year-long investigation by the Detroit Free Press in 2014 found that:

Michigan's charter schools rake in taxpayer money and refuse to detail how they spend it

– Charter school employees and board members were steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders

– More charter schools were ranking below the 25th percentile than public schools

Even a charter advocate, former Michigan state schools superintendent Tom Watkins said, "People are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren't getting educated."

Her performance at her confirmation hearing was abysmal. Below is part of what the editorial board at the New York Daily News had to say about her alarming lack of basic information about the department she seeks to run.

Below that is the majority of a Detroit Free Press article from two months ago with much more specific details.

Reject Betsy DeVos: Trump's unqualified education pick

It’s not just a caricature to paint DeVos as clueless. In confirmation hearings, she revealed herself to be actually addled on some of the most important questions facing the agency she seeks to head.

Thrown a softball — asked to affirm basic responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a law on the books since the 1970s that is Washington’s duty to enforce — she whiffed, delivering a meaningless mantra about leaving things to states.

Pressed on whether she was “unaware that it was federal law,” DeVos then admitted, “I may have confused it.”

The astonishing display of ignorance was rivaled by a brief exchange on measuring student achievement.

For well over a decade, just about anyone who follows reform has been schooled on the difference between judging students, teachers and schools on the basis of proficiency (meaning, overall achievement scores on standardized tests) and judging them on growth (meaning, improvements or lack thereof from year to year).

The distinction has been at the center of fever-pitch battles on how best to rate teachers, and on how to determine whether long-struggling schools are failing or making progress.

DeVos was asked to explain the difference. She couldn’t do it.

Betsy DeVos and the twilight of public education

By Stephen Henderson 
December 6, 2016

In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation's largest urban network of charter schools.

What remains in short supply is quality.

In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.

On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.

Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.

For students enrolled in schools of choice — that is, schools in nearby districts who have opened their doors to children who live outside district boundaries — it's not much better. Kids who depend on Detroit's problematic public transit are too far away from the state's top-performing school districts — and most of those districts don't participate in the schools of choice program, anyway.

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and "choice" means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.


President-elect Donald Trump has made a number of controversial cabinet nominations already. But none seems more inappropriate, or more contrary to reason, than his choice of DeVos to lead the Department of Education.

DeVos isn’t an educator, or an education leader. She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance. In fact, she has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools.

She is, in essence, a lobbyist — someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them.

For 20 years, the lobby her family bankrolls has propped up the billion-dollar charter school industry and insulated it from commonsense oversight, even as charter schools repeatedly failed to deliver on their promises to parents and children.

The conflicts

Betsy DeVos and other family members have given more than $2 million to the PAC since 2001. GLEP has spent that money essentially buying policy outcomes that have helped Michigan's charter industry grow while shielding it from accountability.

This summer, the DeVos family contributed $1.45 million over two months — an astounding average of $25,000 a day — to Michigan GOP lawmakers and the state party after the Republican-led Legislature derailed a bipartisan provision that would have provided more charter school oversight in Detroit.

GLEP also pushed hard — and successfully — to lift the cap on charter schools a few years ago, even though Michigan already had among the highest number of charters in the nation despite statistics suggesting charters weren't substantively outperforming traditional public schools.

And in 2000, the DeVos extended family spent $5.6 million on an unsuccessful campaign to amend Michigan's constitution to allow school vouchers — the only choice tool not currently in play in Michigan.

Even if Betsy DeVos ceased her substantial contributions to pro-school choice lawmakers, or to GLEP’s PAC, what credibility would she have in a policy job that requires her to be an advocate for all schools? Would her family divest from the PAC if she were Secretary of Education? Rein in campaign spending? And even if it did, how could she credibly distance herself from her history as a lobbyist?

About those outcomes

Beyond the conflicts, there are also deep questions about Betsy DeVos' substantive understanding of education policy.

As Secretary of Education, DeVos would be expected to help set standards, guide accountability and oversee research in a way that benefits children, through outcomes, not one particular interest or industry. And more important, the U.S. Secretary of Education must understand the value of both high-performing charters and traditional public schools.

She has no track record of working along those lines, and no experience that suggests she’s even interested in it.

Largely as a result of the DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state. And it lacks any effective mechanism for shutting down, or even improving, failing charters.

We're a laughingstock in national education circles, and a pariah among reputable charter school operators, who have not opened schools in Detroit because of the wild West nature of the educational landscape here.

In Michigan, just about anyone can open a charter school if they can raise the money. That's not so in most other states, where proven track records are required.

Once a school opens in Michigan, it's free to operate for as long as it wants, and is seldom held accountable by state officials for its performance. 

And in Michigan, you can operate a charter for profit, so even schools that fail academically are worth keeping open because they can make money.

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