Analysis Politics

Betsy DeVos’ Choice of New Hires Suggests She’ll Keep Her School Privatization Promises

Alex Kotch

A DeVos-helmed Department of Education will likely put vulnerable students at even more risk.

Betsy DeVos, the conservative plutocrat and controversial cabinet nominee who barely squeaked through her confirmation vote for secretary of education, announced a spate of new hires on April 12. And, in keeping with DeVos’ history, there’s a theme.

Out of the eight new hires, at least four have a demonstrated record of advocating for charter schools or private school vouchers—taking money from the public education budget and giving it to kids for tuition at private, often religious, schools. DeVos’ selection of these individuals, along with existing staff at the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), confirms what many suspected: that DeVos will push hard for school privatization from the beginning of her term as education secretary. This, in turn, could endanger the general success of the country’s K-12 education while creating even larger barriers to fair treatment in school for already marginalized populations.

The Privatization Proponents in the Department of Education

DeVos has been a lifelong school privatization advocate, having chaired the American Federation for Children, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit dedicated to “school choice,” and funded a massive expansion of poorly performing, unregulated charters in Detroit. Knowing DeVos’ record, President Donald Trump picked her to lead the Education Department and carry out the vague, $20 billion school choice proposal he campaigned on. In March, Trump released a budget blueprint, which cuts the Department of Education’s budget by 13 percent but puts an additional $1.4 billion towards school choice programs.

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“The budget places power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children by investing an additional $1.4 billion in school choice programs,” said DeVos in a statement shortly afterward.

A budget deal funding the government through the end of 2017 cuts only $1.3 billion of the $9 billion that Trump wanted to eliminate. School choice got a minor boost, though not nearly what Trump proposed: Federal charter school programs get an additional $9 million in funding, and a Washington, D.C., private school voucher program was approved and will get $45 million.

DeVos’ new hires appear well suited to carry out the privatization plan. DeVos’ new chief of staff, for instance, is Josh Venable, former national director of advocacy and legislation at the pro-school choice Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), where DeVos was a board member as of 2016 and to which DeVos’ foundation has donated. FEE—which has come under fire for its extensive lobbying that serves as “a backdoor vehicle for major corporations“—advocates for charter school expansion, private school vouchers, and digital learning based on Florida’s education reforms. Two earlier Department of Education hires—Andrew Kossack and Neil Ruddock—are also Foundation for Excellence in Education alumni, and they worked together to operate a school voucher program in Indiana.

The new deputy chief of staff for policy, Ebony Lee, worked on charter school policy for the Gates Foundation, which is a top FEE donor. The Gates Foundation has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars towards charter school creation and research.

Jason Botel is deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. Botel was the executive director of pro-charter group MarylandCAN when it strongly supported GOP Gov. Larry Hogan’s 2015 attempt at expanding charter schools in the state. Botel previously founded a charter school and directed the Baltimore wing of the huge charter school chain KIPP, where he sparred with unions over teacher salaries.

Meanwhile, Candice Jackson, named as deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Civil Rights, has tweeted about “the power of charter schools” and the merits of “true choice combined with fiscal federalism.” But she’s far better known for her disturbing views on civil rights.

As an undergraduate at Stanford, Jackson claimed she faced discrimination because she was white. A detailed piece by Annie Waldman of ProPublica shows that Jackson has opposed both affirmative action and feminism and has supported the work of a historian who argued against government-mandated schooling and the Civil Rights Act. The appointment of Jackson as the acting head of the civil rights office, which typically investigates thousands of civil rights complaints at schools every year, signals that the office may pursue far fewer of these complaints.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 organizations that does outreach and lobbying around equal opportunity and social justice, recently wrote letters to DeVos expressing concerns over Jackson. The civil rights groups also wrote to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, calling for public hearings to vet any nominee for assistant secretry for civil rights. The letters question DeVos’ department’s commitment to protecting all students’ civil rights and call Jackson “an individual with a history of hostility toward civil rights” and “ignorant of the history and continued presence of race and sex discrimination.”

Charter Schools and Civil Rights Concerns

Charter schools are considered public, but they’re operated independently. Private, for-profit management firms often operate chains of charters, and they’re motivated primarily by profit, not outcomes.

Public opinion is divided on charters, but one thing is certain: Charter schools increase segregation, usually to the detriment of students of color. For example, in 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint with the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights charging that Delaware’s charter school policies were having discriminatory effects on students of color and students with disabilities in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The NAACP, the Movement for Black Lives, and the Journey for Justice Alliance called for a national moratorium on charter school expansion last year. Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, wrote that “corporate reform has failed to bring equitable educational opportunities to all children.”

Operated independently and without the oversight that governs traditional public schools, charters are able to get away with unsavory practices. For example, charter schools have driven huge increases in suspensions and expulsions that disproportionately affect vulnerable groups.

A 2016 study by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project shows that during the 2011-2012 school year, charter schools gave out-of-school suspensions to their students at a rate 16 percent higher than non-charters. More than five hundred of the nation’s 5,250 charter schools suspended Black students at rates at least 10 percent higher than white students. The study found 270 “hyper-segregated,” mostly Black schools that suspended at least 25 percent of their Black students.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 charter schools suspended students with disabilities at rates at least 10 percent higher than non-disabled students. Of those, 235 schools suspended more than half of their students with disabilities.

These “zero tolerance” policies—even for harmless infractions—and increased suspensions further contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, as those suspended are more likely to drop out, and thus more likely to end up in prison.

In some cases, as has been documented, schools repeatedly suspend students with low test scores or behavioral issues so the parents will eventually pull their children from the schools. The UCLA study also noted that charter schools teach smaller percentages of students with disabilities and students who are learning to speak English.

What’s more, charter schools decrease the number of Black teachers. After a mass firing following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the share of Black teachers went down by 22 percent over nine years.

Public funding for charters also leaves already underfunded traditional public schools even worse off. As the Movement for Black Lives states, the currently inequitable funding of public schools hits students at poor, predominantly Black schools with huge class sizes and inadequate resources, making these schools in turn ripe for privatization as well.

Trans Students Left Without Protections

The letters from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights also draw attention to DeVos’ first action as education secretary, which was to withdraw the past administration’s guidance on Title IX rights pertaining to transgender students. DeVos and her conservative Christian family have given money to anti-LGBTQ hate groups.

In a press release after rescinding Obama’s guidance, DeVos claimed that she considers “protecting all students, including LGBTQ students, not only a key priority for the Department, but for every school in America.” But in that same release, she said, transgender bathroom guidance “is an issue best solved at the state and local level. Schools, communities, and families can find—and in many cases have found—solutions that protect all students.”

As DeVos well knows, many states have proposed and sometimes passed legislation barring transgender people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity, something that is not only discriminatory and demeaning but dangerous for trans students. To claim that states will do what’s best for trans individuals is dishonest at best.

On April 26, Trump signed an executive order aimed at giving more decision-making power to the states. DeVos is tasked with modifying or repealing any federal regulations she finds burdensome over 300 days.

By hiring Jackson in particular as the head of the office who that would investigate anti-trans discrimination among other inequities, DeVos is likely further signaling her reluctance to defend trans rights.

While charter school groups have publicly stated their support for trans rights, individual charter schools have wronged trans students. A school in San Diego refused to admit a trans student, revealing the dangers of charters’ opaque admissions policies as opposed to traditional public schools’. Another school in St. Paul, Minnesota, failed to protect a trans kindergartner from bullying, forcing the student to transfer to a different public school.

Religious schools, which are enriched by the private school vouchers that DeVos supports, are even less likely to admit or protect transgender students.

Public Money for Private, Unaccountable Schools

DeVos has used the privately run charter school expansion model as a gateway to private school vouchers: when public funds are used to pay for kids’ private school tuition. The practice still isn’t legal in Michigan, despite her deep-pocketed efforts, but in a number of other states such as North Carolina and Florida, voucher systems are in place.

DeVos once said that education reform was a way to “advance God’s kingdom,” and it’s no wonder why she favors voucher systems. In many cases, vouchers pay for students to attend religious schools, raising concerns that the scholarships mix church and state. NPR reported that during the 2015-2016 school year, more than 70 percent of the vouchers went to religious, primarily Christian schools. In Washington, D.C., 80 percent of students using vouchers attended religious schools, and in North Carolina, a whopping 93 percent of funds went to religious schools. Indiana‘s program, which then-Gov. Mike Pence greatly expanded, funded almost exclusively religious schools.

Private schools are even less regulated than charters, something that public school advocates, including some in North Carolina, worry about. In that state’s program, private schools that enroll voucher students are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and they don’t have to be accredited, employ licensed teachers, or adhere to state curricular and graduation standards. And voucher programs have been shown, both historically and currently, to increase racial segregation.  Yet DeVos and the Trump administration are planning a federal voucher system to complement what’s already active in the states.

What Comes Next?

While increased school privatization is sure to come, the federal budget is far from passed, and DeVos’ policies are not in effect. Considering how divided the country is on charter schools and vouchers, there should be a healthy, public debate on how public school funds are dispersed.

On May 3, DeVos held an event at the White House with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, streamed live on Facebook, pleading with Congress to fund a major school choice initiative. DeVos “looks forward to working with the White House and Congress on legislation that accomplishes that goal,” said a spokesperson. The Associated Press reports that the Trump administration may propose a federal tax program allowing individuals and corporations to donate to a school voucher fund in exchange for tax credits, something that the American Federation for Children supports.

In the coming months, individuals concerned with school equity should look for those moves and more—especially as DeVos and her new hires will undoubtedly publicize what they see as the benefits of charter schools and vouchers and promote whatever proposed legislation they come up with to increase school choice investment.

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