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The Secretary of Education: The Devil is in the Details

Updated on March 7, 2017

Save Public Education

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Critics say Michigan’s laissez-faire attitude about charter-school regulation has led to marginal and, in some cases, terrible schools in the state’s poorest communities as part of a system dominated by for-profit operators. Charter-school growth has also weakened the finances and enrollment of traditional public-school districts like Detroit’s, at a time when many communities are still recovering from the economic downturn that hit Michigan’s auto industry particularly hard.

— Politico

Out From Darkness

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Martin and Devos

DeVos on Capitol Hill

Millionaire Betsy DeVos being appointed as Secretary of Education is a slap in the face to public education in the United States. By her own admission she has never attended a public school, never taught in a public school, nor have her children attended a public school. A sizeable amount of her fortune has supported the Republican Party for years and her interest in education stems from her mission to deregulate and privatize education through the use of vouchers. “The DeVos family fortune funds pro-education privatization, anti-union and pro-school voucher groups” according to Lisa Graves from The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch (2016)

DeVos’s home state, Michigan, demonstrates the devastation of her hardline school choice reforms. About 80 percent of state charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit management companies, a much higher rate than anywhere else in the country, and with very little oversight from the state. In the past year the DeVoses were the biggest financial backers of the effort to oppose any new state oversight of charters.

Trump and DeVos

Donald Trump claims that public schools run by locally elected boards of education are “government schools” that fit better with the old Soviet Union. Working primarily in Michigan, DeVos has often focused on making charter schools as private as possible. The large majority of Michigan charters are run by for-profit companies, in contrast with most states. The DeVos family donated more than $1 million to Republican lawmakers in 2016 during a successful effort to oppose new oversight of charters. Without a doubt that donation made DeVos a perfect fit for Trump’s Secretary of Education. On the campaign trail Trump proposed a $20 billion federal voucher, and has likened the public school system to a monopoly business that needs to be broken up.

Charter investment is Big Business

Gary M. Sasso, Ph.D. Dean of the College of Education at Lehigh University disclosed that there are specific tax loopholes that make it quite attractive to invest in charter schools. Banks, equity and hedge funds (hedge funds require less regulation than other investments) that invest in charter schools in “underserved” areas can take advantage of a tax credit. They are permitted to combine this tax credit with other tax breaks while they also collect interest on any money they lend out. According to the data, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years.

Moreover, in a report/ebook on the corporate takeover of K-12 schools, Don Hazen, Elizabeth Hines, Steven Rosenfeld (2016) maintain that the wealthy’s focus on charters seeks to weaken unions, and to “deflect from the fact that they have benefited most from income inequality and that their business practices—such as moving manufacturing jobs overseas and reducing their tax burden”. The National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has condemned choice as a looming disaster for public schools in America. Garcia observing that DeVos' "efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers--which take away funding and local control from our public schools--to fund private schools at taxpayers' expense."

Research has shown that charter schools nationwide actually serve a higher proportion of students of color because charters tend to open in areas with a minority concentration. And as suggested by Dr. Sasso, “underserved” areas yield better tax credits for charter school investors.

Hazen et al argue, that in several examples, charter schools have failed to fare any better on standardized tests than public schools. “A charter establishment has emerged and has ushered in changes in law and governance that are fundamentally anti-democratic, from operating secretively and without transparency to sidelining locally elected school boards. Bringing the profit motive into non-commercial public education has created a business model that is frequently prone to nepotism, self-dealing and corporate enrichment, and diverting multi-millions from classrooms into private hands”.

Makeover and Takeover

Decades ago as John Walton, a billionaire heir to the Walmart fortune, along with his associates hatched a scheme to takeover taxpayer subsidies while devising a makeover plan for traditional public schools. They shared a belief of corporate values, private sector efficiencies, and the need to deregulate public schools. “Deploying their vast dollars, they entered the public policy arena by extolling the virtues of privatization and demonizing teacher unions, teacher training, and education bureaucracies (whose roots were to prevent corruption), and they perpetuated the myth that public schools were failing”.

Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, "In nominating Devos Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America." Education historian Diane Ravitch stated that DeVos is the most radical, anti-public-school education secretary since the Office of Education was established in 1867. "Never has anyone been appointed to lead in the past 150 years who was hostile to public education," said Ravitch.

Troublesome Times

Even charter school supporters now criticize Detroit, Michigan as one of the most unregulated markets in the country. About 80 percent of the state’s charters are operated for profit, far higher than anywhere else. During a visit to the City of Detroit, Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) observed that “There are dozens of Detroit charter schools that should probably be closed immediately. Competition for students is so vicious that schools are reportedly bribing parents with iPads and cash to drive up enrollment. Yet despite all of this competition, charter school quality is stagnant, and more charters are being approved every year by… sponsors who operate outside the city and with little or no accountability for their actions. I heard from parents… having a horrible time navigating their choices and figuring out how to enroll in schools. I heard about schools that closed midyear, leaving families to fend for themselves”.

In September of 2016, the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Education Department issued its final audit report titled a “Nationwide Assessment of Charter and Education Management Organizations.” The report assessed “the current and emerging risk” that is posed by charter management organizations for fraud, waste and abuse…. The report also cited examples of criminal cases of outright fraud due to charter management organizations and education management organizations having far too much control of charter schools and charter school boards.

Undoubtedly, we know that public education has been put on notice by DeVos and the Trump administration. Her school of choice is not public education. Money used for charter schools translates into less dollars used for public education. Public education is in need of much more funding but funding for inner city public schools is being gutted by the wealthy in favor of charters.

Three funders—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation benefit very well from charters and the privatization of public schools. Known as the Big Three their market-based goals for overhauling public education coincide with: schools of choice, competition, deregulation, accountability, and data-based decision-making. They fund the same vehicles to achieve their goals: charter schools, high-stakes standardized testing for students, merit pay for teachers whose students improve their test scores, firing teachers and closing schools when scores don’t rise adequately, and longitudinal data collection on the performance of every student and teacher, according to Mother Jones.

Standardized Tests Scores are Misleading

Poor standardized test scores are used to intimidate public school teachers, administrators and students by threatening closure of the neighborhood public schools. Standardized tests are bias, misleading, and continue to marginalize minorities in public education. Research shows that public schools and charters show the same gains in standardized tests. And according to late education researcher Gerald W. Bracey, PhD, standardized tests cannot measure "creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty, integrity” (Strauss). Would Betsy DeVos do well on a standardized test which is content driven by public education in America?

Greed vs Needs

Parents and teachers of Detroit public schools students believe closing down schools won't improve education in their city. The state released a list of 38 Michigan schools that could be shut down for low standardized test scores. Twenty-five of them are in Detroit. Charter school investors may be inclined to wait eagerly in the shadows to pounce upon the inner city in favor of charters; even though that will mean shutting down mostly traditional public schools, which in Detroit serve the neediest students, according to New York Times (12/12/2016). However, DeVos argues that Detroit Public Schools should simply be shut down and the system turned over to charters, or the tax dollars given to parents in the form of vouchers to attend private schools.

Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education from public to charter, most of it directed to schools that serve students of color. It is a sad state of affairs to know that those who shape and implement a public schools’ outcomes have never set foot in a public school nor understand or care about the social and economic ramifications of their actions. Their gains and rewards are driven by monetary aspirations, not because of any humanitarian virtues. The students affected by these policies are numbers on the bottom of a spreadsheet. And if one follows the money trail of the wealthy privatization mobsters, it is clear to see how mis-educated students translates into big bucks.

Several decades ago this writer was subjected to a series of standardized tests for the purpose of career placement. The tests’ findings indicated two career options; hair stylists and nail technician. By all means the latter professions are honorable and quite lucrative; however, the testers advised that there were no findings that would substantiate pursuing a four year college degree. Contrary to the tests’ prognostications, yours truly proudly attest to a Detroit Public School educational heritage. This heritage was the precursor for being invited to teach, and did teach, ten years at a university; for being admitted to the doctoral program in the College of Education at Wayne State University and successfully completing both the oral and written comprehensive exams for the doctorate. Presently this heritage is providing the impetus for this black female to author this text in this space and at this time in this racially divided America where the devil can still be found in the details.

Reference

Valerie Strauss, "The Myths of Standardized Testing,” Washington Post, Apr. 15, 2011.

DeVos empire

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      Setank Setunk 7 months ago

      Your concerns are valid. Charter schools are a counter to the disastrous standardized system in use since the mid-1970's yet are not a cure-all. Our current system, to include teacher education, has supplanted fundamentals with progressive indoctrination. Although Progressives and Liberals preach diversity, tolerance and inclusiveness, they pursue a one size fits all approach to education.

      The enormous size of the U.S. and it's diverse population preclude the possibility for such a system to work. A uniform education system requires teaching universal educational instruments: reading, writing, math and physical science. Anything else should be scrutinized locally. We need competent Educators which means we must look to the private sector. After all we should not teach our children what to think but how to think.

      The States, and in cases of dire need, the Federal Government, should ensure that education funding is uniform and that a standard is set for the primary instruments. All other aspics of the educational experience should be localized.