Does Betsy DeVos Mean the End of Public Education in America?

Just How Out of the Mainstream is Trump’s Chosen Education Secretary?

Betsy DeVos, Joe Lieberman
Betsy DeVos testifying during her confirmation hearing. Former Senator Joe Lieberman introduced Ms. Devos to the committee. Photo credit: C-SPAN

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick to head the Department of Education, has long sought to end free public education and replace it with vouchers and for-profit charters — even though 85% of American kids attend public schools.

She and her family have spent a considerable amount of their $5 billion fortune trying to spread God’s kingdom in their Michigan schools and have created the largest voucher system for religious schools.

Separation of church and state in education is not something that DeVos believes in.

Diane Ravitch, Ph.D., a former Assistant Secretary of Education and long-time education historian, author and professor, points out in this week’s podcast that DeVos is so far out of the mainstream that even charter groups, like the Massachusetts Charter Movement, are opposing her nomination.

Dr. Ravitch tells host Jeff Schechtman that while DeVos can do considerable damage to our nation’s education system as well as staff and teacher morale, she won’t be able to do much about Trump’s long-time whipping post of Common Core.

A set of national standards evolved during the Obama administration, Common Core is directed by the individual states. It’s now beyond the control of the Department of Education.

All this upheaval comes at a time when technological and social disruption puts more pressure on the importance of a broad-based public education for the next generation.

Dr. Ravitch is the author of several books, including The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2016); Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools  (Vintage Books, 2014); The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Vintage Books, 2003).

A transcript of this interview will be provided soon.

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As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.

 

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Amidst all the political rhetoric of the past 18 months, a couple of things are clear. One is that the nature of work is changing; that technology, AI and robotics will play a larger and larger role, that globalization even in spite of the populist infection that’s broken out, is here to stay and that to deal with all of this, education of the next generations is going to be ground zero. It’s beyond troubling then that Donald Trump appointed to lead the Department of Education, someone who seems to know nothing about the past, present or future of federal education policy. Betsy DeVos seems hell bent on an anti-public school agenda, the use of taxpayer dollars for parochial schools and little understanding of educational needs or goals. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest Diane Ravitch.

Diane is a research professor of education at New York University, she’s a historian of education, she’s the former assistant secretary of education and a former member of the National Assessment Governing Board. She’s the author of ten books about education including her latest: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. It is my pleasure to welcome Diane Ravitch to the program. Diane, thanks so much for joining us.

Diane Ravitch: Thank you Jeff, glad to talk to you.

Jeff Schechtman: I want to talk first of all about how out of the mainstream this appointment seems to be. Certainly you and I have talked in the past and I know you had issues with Arne Duncan, and many of us had issues with Margaret Spellings when she ran the Education Department. There have been lots of differences in policy over the years but this appointment seems so far out of the mainstream.

Diane Ravitch: Well, yeah. Betsy DeVos is an extremist, she’s a religious extremist, she’s an ideological extremist. She has never been in public school as either a teacher or a student. Not only did she not attend public schools, her children also attended Christian schools. She is a particular kind of a Christian Evangelical that seems to be peculiar to Holland, Michigan and that part of Michigan that was settled by Dutch people many years ago is a way of opposing any reform of their church. She sees her mission in life as spreading God’s kingdom. This is not what we do with public education. Public education, throughout the history of this country has been non-sectarian, non-religious and accommodating to all different kinds of religions because we have so many different religions, so many different backgrounds in this country that we made a pact a long time ago, that we would separate church and state. Those are actually the words of Thomas Jefferson, who understood that separation of church and state was vital or we would be just like Europe, breaking up into warring factions. So Betsy DeVos is not only a religious extremist, she is unfortunately a multibillionaire. Her own father was a billionaire from the auto parts industry in Michigan and she married into the billionaire DeVos family, which is Amway; the pyramid marketing scheme. So Forbes estimates their fortune in excess of $5 billion. She has been a lobbyist for vouchers for religious schools and also for charters. Many people in the charter industry in places like California where the charter industry is incredibly powerful are celebrating because it means more federal money for the privatization of public schools. But she’s dangerously ignorant of everything that the US Department of Education does, as she showed in her hearing the other night.

Jeff Schechtman: Even in California, it’s interesting in talking to people here about DeVos and the charter movement, even people that are very active in the charter movement here are terrified about what could come out of her running the Department of Education. They’re not looking at it as entirely positive at all.

Diane Ravitch: Well, there are people in the charter movement who have expressed concern. I know that the Massachusetts Charter Association sent a letter opposing her nomination because what is likely to happen, and you could see that at the hearing the other day, is the Democrats are pressing very hard to say any school that accepts any federal funding is going to have to accept all the federal mandates that come with the federal funding. Thus far, charters have been able to avoid compliance with the IDEA, which is the Individual Disability Education Act. That’s special education for children with handicaps. Many charters don’t take children with severe disabilities because they say they don’t have the staff or facilities to deal with it but under federal law, that’s just an excuse. You can’t get away with that. Many charters have excluded kids who are English Language Learners because they don’t have the staff for that. So I think that if DeVos gets in and she capitulates as many in the Congress believe she must, to imposing federal mandates, then the charters will be just as regulated as the public schools.

Jeff Schechtman: What also was troubling in her hearing was the fact that she didn’t even seem to have an understanding of what IDEA was.

Diane Ravitch: No, she did not know and she got confused. When she was asked about what do you think about IDEA, do you think it should apply to all the schools that get federal money, she said no, that should be left to the states. There was an exchange that she had with Senator Kane and then with Senator Murray from the state of Washington and it became clear; she had no idea what the IDEA was. She didn’t understand that it’s actually a federal law, it’s not a question if the states want to meet the needs of children with disabilities. I think that the key quote was when Senator Kane was pressing her to explain whether she thought all the same regulations should apply to all schools who get federal funds and she kept dodging the question and finally he said, are you suggesting that if a state ignores the IDEA that parents should just move to another state so that they can find a state where the laws are going to be followed, and she was completely flummoxed. She was also flummoxed about every other question that was asked about the specifics. She understands nothing about higher education. Her family has been major contributors to Christian Evangelical colleges like the one she attended, which was Calvin College in Michigan and they also devoted a huge bulk of their fortune to Christian Evangelical schools. So she really has no understanding of public education and it’s important to bear in mind that 85% of the kids in this country go to public schools. About 5% or 6% percent go to charter schools and another 10% go to private and religious schools. Now, that 10% has been pretty steady for decades and it varies between 10% and 12% but basically, the overwhelming majority of kids in this country are in public schools and she advanced no knowledge whatever of public education and certainly all of her philanthropic efforts have been devoted towards privatizing public education, as well as her political efforts. She’s created PACTS, Political Action Committees that have specifically funded candidates who are pro-voucher. She’s even run hard-right candidates against moderate Republicans in order to make the party more extreme and that’s what’s happened in Michigan.

Jeff Schechtman: Shed a little light on this exchange she had with Senator Franken about not understanding the difference between really a fundamental debate in education between proficiency and growth.

Diane Ravitch: Well, Senator Franken from Minnesota was talking about a debate that’s gone on certainly in the Congress and amongst educators about what’s the best way to evaluate test scores and students. I’m personally very opposed to putting this much emphasis on test scores, but the debate is do you measure a school by the proficiency of the students, how they score on the tests or do you measure them by the growth of the students, whether they gain a year or two years. He asked her to talk about her understanding of this debate between proficiency and growth and she proceeded to completely mangle the definition and he said, but you’re not talking about proficiency, you’re talking about growth and she said something like, I’m not sure I understand your question. Of course you didn’t understand the question because she doesn’t understand anything about the issues connected to federal education policy. She may be a smart woman in terms of using her money to advance her religious goals, but she is completely in the dark about federal education. If you want to see a hilarious send-up, I suggest that you Google Trevor Noah on the Daily Show, who took some of the highlights of her testimony and had a ball kind of thing, “but she’s failed every single subject, but the only one she passed was Donations 101” because she and her family have given at least $200 million to the Republican party, which means she will be confirmed, actually she and her family have given money to 10 of the 12 Republican members of the committee that will be judging her.

Jeff Schechtman: Given all of this that we’ve been talking about Diane and given the state of education policy today, the degree to which it has changed under the Obama Administration with Race to the Top and the various things that were done, how much damage can be done by the Federal Department of Education with someone like Betsy DeVos running it?

Diane Ravitch: I think that the damage can be very considerable. A state like California might be able to shield itself by saying no because she’s obviously going to devolve a lot of power to states, but in the meanwhile most of the states in this country are controlled by Republicans who are as hard-right as she is. So we may see half the country moving towards disestablishing public education and replacing it with vouchers for religious schools and frankly, there are not enough religious schools in the whole country to accommodate all of the children who would get vouchers under the proposal that Donald Trump has made. So we would see fly-by-nights operating in church basements and fly-by-night charters that pop up overnight. The state of Michigan has hundreds of charters and the charters in Michigan do worse than the regular public schools. Detroit, which is overrun with charters and overrun by the way, with for profit charters. Now California does have some for profit charters but 80% of the charters in Michigan are for profit. So it’s a terrible, unregulated sector and the Detroit Free Press ran a yearlong investigation in which they said the charter industry in Michigan spends $1 billion a year in taxpayer money with no accountability and it gets worse results than the public schools. So I think that if we take Betsy DeVos’s example of Michigan, we’re talking about the dumbing down of American education and the ruination of good public schools.

Jeff Schechtman: What does this mean for things like Common Core and some of these local funding formulas that have been put in place over the past several years?

Diane Ravitch: Well, I don’t think she will have much effect on Common Core. Donald Trump used that as an applause line when he was running for office, that it’s a disaster, he’ll get rid of it. Actually once Common Core was created and it was shoved into the states by Arne Duncan because Arne Duncan said I have a $5 billion pot of discretionary money here and if you want to be eligible to apply, you have to adopt the Common Core. So something like 45 states went along and adopted the Common Core in hopes of getting a part of that $5 billion. Only 18 states got the money he was offering but then 45 were stuck with the Common Core. Now, these states can get rid of the Common Core if they want to, it’s not really a federal issue anymore and the Education Department, the person who’s in charge of it, can’t say that states don’t use the Common Core because he or she, she in this case, doesn’t have that authority. As it happens, Betsy DeVos is a supporter of the Common Core and I’ve seen several names, like Hanna Skandera who’s now the Chief Educational Officer in New Mexico, who is an avid supporter of the Common Core. So every name that’s been proposed for the Trump Administration’s Department of Education is a huge supporter of Common Core so this is just another one of Trump’s lies.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about funding and the impact that it can have on states that might resist some of the changes. States like California, as you mentioned before that might resist some of the changes trying to be made.

Diane Ravitch: What they want to with funding is Donald Trump said during the campaign, that he would take $20 billion of existing federal funding and offer it to the states as you can do with this money what you wish but it will be targeted for vouchers or charters or any other use you want to make, cyber schooling. So many states will take this money and say oh great, instead of spending it on poor kids, we’ll spend it on opening up more charters and offering vouchers. I think that if California doesn’t want to do that, it won’t have to do it. You can continue your present funding formula. But what he’s trying to do is take existing federal funding that has a specific purpose, one: to help poor kids and to go directly to those schools where they’re enrolled and two: I believe he’ll also be dipping into money for special education and kids with disabilities because he didn’t say he was going to spend new money on education. So those are the two pots of money that he can raise and say this is money going to the states and it’s going to be turned into money to be used for charters or vouchers and presumably they might even include public schools as one of the choices you’re allowed to make. So if a state like California says we don’t want what you’re offering, that money could be used for more charter schools, I mean California already has more charter schools than any other state and frankly, I think that the state has too many charter schools and, as in every state, not enough supervision. I spoke with your head of the State Department of Education Tom Torlakson and I asked him what kind of supervision are you able to provide and he said “We simply don’t have the staff to supervise charters.” So charters, they basically take the money and nobody oversees them and the only way the scandals are revealed is when there is a whistleblower.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the impact, the overall impact you see this having in terms of accountability. You know we’ve talked for so long in this country about testing, about accountability, about measurement, about metrics in education, this debate’s been going on for a long time. How do you see that playing out within the context of all that we’ve been talking about?

Diane Ravitch: Well, just before the election, Congress passed a new law to replace No Child Left Behind called the Every Student Succeeds Act. I mean, I have a big problem with this whole idea that the federal government is in charge of accountability because they’re very distant from the schools and they frankly don’t know what they’re talking about. So they’re always looking for some kind of a measurement tool and they fall back on what’s available, which is standardized tests. I have had a lot of experience overseeing standardized testing because I was, for seven years, on the what’s called the National Assessment Governing Board. That’s a federal entity that supervises the NAEP. NAEP is the national test that’s given every two years. So I’ve had a lot of familiarity with testing and I came to feel very dubious about the value of these tests when they’re used for anything other than sampling. The virtue of the NAEP: the National Assessment of Education Progress, is that it’s given every two years in reading and in math and it’s like a dipstick. You don’t use your dipstick every single day in your car unless it’s in terrible trouble, but you periodically – if dipsticks even exist anymore and I’m not even sure about that – but you periodically do a sampling to see how things are going. I think that what makes sense is to stop testing every child every year. There’s no other country in the world that does this. But Congress could not give up on the No Child Left Behind idea of testing every child every year and so the new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, will mean that every child will be tested every year from grades 3 through 8 in reading and in math and then the states are required to identify their lowest 5% of schools and to take some kind of dramatic action. Now all of this is still frankly an extension of No Child Left Behind, which failed miserably. We’ve seen not only very little progress over these past 15 years of constant measurement but the last time that the NAEP was given, the National Assessment test was given, scores actually went flat for the first time in about 20 years. States were not making progress because all this testing takes away time from instruction. The way the kids learn is if they’re taught. They don’t learn because they’re tested, they learn because they’re taught and I would like to see less testing and more teaching. But that’s not what federal law says. Federal law says you will continue the testing and all this emphasis on testing and measurement and metrics and data and accountability has produced nothing. There was a report that just came out yesterday actually, yesterday afternoon which I put on my blog this morning: Mathematica Policy Research, which is an independent research agency was commissioned by the federal government to evaluate one of its big programs called the School Improvement Grant. This was $3.5 billion, we’re not talking million, we’re talking B, billion. $3.5 billion for testing, for firing principals, reorganizing schools, punishing schools that didn’t meet the test scores, etc. The study said that this $3.5 billion had zero effect on student achievement, zero! So I think all of this data driven testing has no impact other than to destroy the arts, eliminate physical education, reduce the teaching of science and history and civics and distort education. I look forward to the day, which won’t be coming soon but someday, we’ll have better leadership in Washington that will understand that all of these incentives have been counterproductive; that they were driving people away from the teaching profession, we’re not getting the best people coming in because the best people are leaving because they’re sick of being judged by these stupid standardized test scores.

Jeff Schechtman: And finally Diane, what should parents be on the lookout for in this kind of environment that we’re about to go into?

Diane Ravitch: I think that what parents need to do is to go to their schools and say: “You know what really matters to me is that my child has adequate time for the arts. I want my child to come to school not to be tested, but to learn to play an instrument, to sing in a chorus, to join a band, to paint, to do sculpture, to learn to use the computer to do creative things.” I think that parents should insist upon all the activities in school that lead to healthy and happy and fulfilled children, that give children joy. I think that what’s really crucial is to forget about the test scores and focus on the joy of learning. Everything the federal government is doing and has been doing now for 15 or 16 years has the effect of squashing the joy of learning. This is a great country, we have wonderful public schools despite all the lies you hear in the media and support your public schools, support your teachers and encourage them to give children time to play. Read Pasi Sahlberg’s wonderful book Finnish Lessons and learn about how Finland became one of the best education systems in the world, not by testing but by focusing on creativity and the arts and the joy of learning. It really works.

Jeff Schechtman: Diane Ravitch, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Diane Ravich: Thank you, Jeff. Bye bye.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Betsy DeVos (US Senate) and Diane Ravitch (Susan Ruggles / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).

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