So Betsy DeVos doesn’t know much about education policy. Didn’t we already know that?
Nevertheless, the hot takes coming after her rocky confirmation hearing for the US Secretary of Education nominee read as if people are genuinely surprised that someone who has never been a teacher, never run a school, never served as a public official overseeing education, and never been engaged in scholarly work on education is not terribly well versed in education policy.
When peppered with questions about complicated policy issues like assessment methodology and federal enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, “DeVos’s inexperience in the realm of public education appeared at times to be a liability,” observes Emma Brown for the Washington Post.
Libby Nelson at Vox finds DeVos’ reaction to “questions about the basics of federal education policy suggested she knows little about what the department she hopes to lead actually does.”
Valerie Strauss, the education blogger for the Post, writes, “DeVos either displayed a lack of knowledge about education fundamentals or refused to answer questions that Democratic members of the Senate Education Committee believe are critical to her fitness for the job”
The senators’ questions were indeed about important matters and should have been asked, and certainly the queries from the Democratic side of the committee were more worthy than the softball questions and vapid compliments from the Republican side. (Memo to Republican senators: Saying someone really, really “cares about kids” doesn’t qualify her for office.)
But there were bigger, more philosophical education issues DeVos could have likely been more able to expound on had she ever been asked. One of those big-picture issues that was glaringly absent from the senators’ questioning was race.
Race has historically played a much larger role in federal education policy than disputes over standardized testing, “accountability,” charter schools, Common Core, and what else tends to occupy education debates these days. It’s also an issue where DeVos has a very controversial track record.
What largely defines the federal government’s role in education, at least at the K-12 level, is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which grew out the federal government’s War on Poverty and was a response to Brown v. Board of Education – the landmark Supreme Court case that called for racially integrated schools – and the Civil Rights Movement. The law has had different names over the years, but its focus on equal access and opportunity for students started with black children before expanding to other student populations.
So what are DeVos’ views on racial equity in education? Does she support racial integration? What would she do to assert the federal government’s historic role in ensuring racial equity in schools?
Unfortunately, much of what DeVos has worked for in her state of Michigan – the “schools of choice program,” vouchers, and the proliferation of charters – is taking the state’s schools back to a segregationist past.
As a recent analysis by Bridge Magazine finds, “Tens of thousands of parents across Michigan are using the state’s schools of choice program to move students out of their resident districts and into ones that are more segregated.”
The analysis includes Holland, Michigan, DeVos’ home town, where “white enrollment has plummeted 60 percent, with 2,100 fewer white students. Today, whites comprise 49 percent of school-age children living in the district, but only 38 percent the school population.”
The level of white flight is similar across the state. “In the 2009-10 school year, roughly 64 percent of choice students across the state moved to a less diverse district. That rate is now approaching 70 percent.”
Bridge Magazine’s analysis finds especially stark results from school choice in East Detroit, where white students have fled the district to Lakeview schools, a predominantly white district that has better test scores, more funding, and better facilities. The article quotes charter school advocates who say the white flight has less to do with race than with “better quality schools.” But the history of America teaches that a racially separate school system will never produce equal outcomes for kids.
This resegregation of the state has negative academic results. Bridge points to studies that show disadvantaged black and brown students benefit academically and socially from a more integrated education environment and that integration can help white students too.
Michigan’s performance on the national benchmark exam, the National Assessment of Education Progress, is on trajectory to land the state at near bottom, 48th, in the nation.
The racial segregation produced by school choice in Michigan is similar to what these programs have created across the country.
Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Simon Montlake notes, “What both charter schools and vouchers have in common, say critics, is that they perpetuate the racial segregation of US schools, even as the nation’s school-age population grows ever more diverse. While minority parents are being given more choices about where to enroll their children, these choices rarely extend to schools that are more integrated by race or ethnicity.”
Staunch defenders of DeVos like to cite her philanthropic work and advocacy for school choice as efforts to empower black and brown families to obtain better education options.
At her confirmation hearing, DeVos called out two in the audience Denisha Meriweather, an African-American student from Florida, and Nydia Salazar, a Latina student from Arizona, who were “rescued from failing schools” by voucher programs in their states.
As Wayne State University professor Mitchell Robinson explains on a Michigan based blogsite, the two women DeVos pointed to are commonly featured props in her propaganda campaign. Meriwether, he notes, is a paid employee of a Florida organization that helps administer the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program she used to attend a private religious school at taxpayer expense. Salazar, he explains in a separate post, used a taxpayer funded voucher program in Arizona to subsidize part of the cost of her education at a Catholic school that charged $14,000 per year. The rest had to come from her family’s income – hardly a solution that most low-income people can afford.
Others from black and brown communities that DeVos, and other school choice proponents, claims to care so much about who also showed up for her confirmation were locked out of the hearing room.
Members of the Journey for Justice Alliance – an alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in 24 cities across the country – mounted a bus trip with over 100 primarily black parents and students traveling over 500 miles from Detroit to DC for the hearing.
In a pre-hearing event, J4J executive director Jitu Brown, a Chicago based community organizer, spoke about the “main issue” in American public education: racial equity.
Brown calls school choice an illusion in black and brown urban communities like his, including Detroit and Philadelphia. “We have plenty of ‘choices,’” he argues, “but they lack quality.”
Over 100 of the J4J participants attempted to enter the hearing room, but according to a tweet from the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy that joined J4J in speaking out, pro-charter “line holders” were already in place to fill the room ahead of the protestors. In a tweet from his organization’s timeline, Brown claims the line holders were paid to stand in line and then switched out of the line to be replaced by children who could enter the hearing room and provide a positive backdrop to the cameras filming DeVos.
The New York Times originally reported this stunt as well, writing that Capitol Police had confirmed supporters of DeVos had paid homeless people to line up to get into the hearing at 6:00 AM. Then at 4:00 PM, an hour before the hearing doors were to open, those in line were replaced by “better-dressed people wearing school-bus-yellow scarves celebrating School Choice Week.” This account was later deleted from the Times report, but both versions are documented here.
Relegated to the overflow room, Detroit parents and students who are most affected by the policies DeVos favors were silenced by security officers and eventually ejected from the building.
Betsy DeVos likes to say her position on education is really very simple – that when parents don’t think their school is a very “good fit,” they simply move to another one. Here’s something else that’s simple: Operating schools that way tends to lead to racially discriminatory results. It’s a shame no senator at her confirmation hearing brought that up.