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The Trouble With DeVos and School Vouchers

Eyebrows were raised when the U.S. Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education by the slimmest of margins, 51-50, with the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence.

DeVos, a billionaire, had served as Michigan Republican National Committee Chairwoman.   Additionally, she had worked with the Alliance for School Choice, Acton Institute, a think tank on education and business, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, another political action group promoting school choice.

DeVos is known for her belief in school choice, charter schools and the voucher system for taxpayers.  

Her inexperience in education worried many during her Senate confirmation hearings, a concern echoed by Dr. Annette Bruno, an education professor at NCC.

“Honestly I’m worried. She wasn’t even on my radar,” Bruno said.

Comparing DeVos with another candidate for the post, Michelle Rhee, Bruno said, “Although (Rhee) may not be popular with everyone, at least she understands education.”

Speaking about the DeVos nomination, Sociology professor Earl Page said, “You can’t address these problems with someone who is a billionaire and has never taught in schools, period.”

To put the concern in perspective, Bruno noted that the nomination was at the federal level and that “how much they can do to make the states comply will be interesting.”

Some changes that are coming are how the states individually approach standardized testing in K-12, giving more leeway on how each state measures student progress with the Every Student Succeeds Act taking effect in the 2017-2018 school year.

Bruno also cited a conversation occurring in education about whether the SATs can prove student progress and whether high school students need to take another standardized test.

Discussing school vouchers, Bruno likened the issue to “a big ball of wax. The idea of school vouchers is much bigger than it appears to be.”

The idea on the surface is that everyone who pays property tax receives a certain amount of money that affects their decision about which school their children attend.

However, Bruno said, the Pennsylvania education budget is one pie, and if everyone take slices out without putting anything back in, nothing is left.

For example, if it costs $10,000 to attend school in the Easton Area School District, and $7,000 is allotted by the school voucher system, the district loses revenue, and the charter school is still at an operating loss, and is forced to fundraise as a result.

One reason behind the rise of charter schools are disparities in educational quality between school districts that are in some cases right next to each other.

Shortly after her confirmation, DeVos visited a Washington, D.C., school, Jefferson Academy, which she called “awesome,” according to The Washington Post. However, a few days later she criticized the teachers she observed as being in “receive mode” and waiting on instructions, and therefore not empowered to facilitate quality teaching, according to the Post.

In terms of her experience in schools, Vice News published a story in December illustrating what her vision of school choice could do to a city, highlighting the plight of Detroit’s public schools.

Her school choice program over 23 years gutted the public schools of Detroit, with marginal improvements in education, according to Excellent Schools Detroit, a reform group providing information to prospective parents.

The voucher system reported in Vice News reinforced the theory that outright competition alone does not improve the status of schools and in cases like Detroit can leave many schools mediocre.

“Education is a field where everyone thinks they know how to fix it,” Bruno said. “Lots of people talk a good game but have no research to back up their solutions.”

Until the Trump administration comes out with specific education proposals, public schools and education professors like Bruno “are in a holding pattern,” she said.