TOPICS > Education > Making the Grade

What will Betsy DeVos’ focus on school choice mean for public education?

January 17, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos has neither taught nor worked in a school system, but she and her family have used wealth and influence to create more charter schools and champion vouchers. As educators watch her hearing for an understanding of her views, William Brangham talks to Frederick Hess of American Enterprise Institute and Randi Weingarten of American Federation of Teachers.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: president-elect Trump’s pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.

She is a nontraditional choice and a power player in Republican circles. Her supporters applaud a woman they see as a disrupter focused on children. Her critics worry she will erode crucial funds for public schools, and that she has not been forthright in her own financial disclosures.

She is on Capitol Hill as we speak for her confirmation hearing. And it is the focus of our weekly segment, Making the Grade.

William Brangham is our guide.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Shortly after Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing began this evening, she made one thing clear: She plans to push for expanded school choice around the country, much as she did during her two decades as a major political force in her home state of Michigan.

BETSY DEVOS, Education Secretary Nominee: Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs — need of every child. And they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, faith-based, or any combination. Yet, too many parents are denied access to the full range of options.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: DeVos has neither taught, nor worked as an educator or supervisor in a school system, but she and her family, whose net worth tops $5 billion, have used that wealth and influence as advocates and political donors to create more charter schools in Michigan, and to try legalizing school vouchers. Vouchers let parents spend public money on private or parochial schools.

She lost the voucher battle in Michigan, but still champions their use. Democrats are worried that DeVos will undermine public education across the country.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY, D-Wash.: We focus our federal policies and investments on strengthening public schools for all students, and certainly not towards diverting taxpayer dollars to fund vouchers that don’t work for unaccountable private schools. I have major concerns with how you spent your career and fortune fighting to privatize public education and gut investments in public schools.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: DeVos’ philosophy fits right in with president-elect Trump’s, who pledged during the campaign to provide $20 billion in federal support for charter schools and vouchers.

Her support for charters, which are publicly funded schools, but which operate independently, is the subject of particular scrutiny. The Detroit Free Press found that 75 percent of schools in Michigan performed better than charters did, and they had some of the weakest oversight in the country.

Supporters point to better gains by African-American and Latino students in those schools. Today, DeVos tried to assure senators that she is not an enemy of public schools.

BETSY DEVOS: The vast majority of students in this country will continue to attend public schools. If confirmed, I will be a strong advocate for great public schools.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As the hearing continued this evening, educators are also watching closely for DeVos’ stance on civil rights, college affordability and for-profit colleges.

For more on Betsy DeVos and what she means for education in America, I’m joined by two people with divergent views about her. Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of biggest teachers unions in the country, and one that opposes her nomination. And Rick Hess, who’s written several books about teachers and education, and is with the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, where Betsy DeVos is a board member.

Welcome to you both.

RANDI WEINGARTEN, American Federation of Teachers: Thank you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Randi Weingarten, I would like to start to you.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: And Rick and I are good friends, by the way.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And you two are good friends. That’s good to get out there.

Randi, you heard Betsy DeVos. She said she’s not an enemy of public schools. So, what concerns you?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, that is clearly contradictory to the 30 years of evidence, where she has called public schools dead ends, where she has said that they should be retired, where she ran a campaign against Republicans and Democrats alike in Detroit where her hashtag was #endDPS, end Detroit Public Schools.

So, I assume that she’s saying that now because suburban voters, rural voters, Democrats, Republicans alike, 90 percent of the kids in America attend public schools.

But her record speaks volumes. And what we’re concerned about is that record, because, in Michigan, as you said, for the last 25 years, she has worked to dismantle, destabilize and defund public schools at the very same time as she’s worked to shield for-profit charters from any kind of accountability.

And those schools have done very badly. And the public schools, particularly for black and brown children, have been very destabilized in places like Flint, Detroit, Ecore (ph) and other places.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Rick Hess, you have heard these criticisms before, I know.

What is — you believe her record indicates that she ought to be the secretary of education. What do you like about her?

FREDERICK HESS, American Enterprise Institute: You know, I think she’s a smart woman. She’s a thoughtful woman. She’s spent three decades as an educational advocate.

Now, it’s true that she — her vision about how you advocate to serve all children well is very different from Randi’s or the AFT’s. Betsy works from a different premise. The premise is that these dollars do not belong to systems. They do not belong to bureaucracies. They do not belong to state education agencies and local education agencies.

These are — we spend $650 billion, $700 billion a year to educate all of our nation’s children, 50 million-odd kids. If those families think those children are better served in a traditional district school or a charter school or a private option, Betsy’s philosophy is that we ought to regard it as an opportunity to make sure that each of these families and each of these kids is better served.

I don’t understand why anybody would necessarily view any of that as anti-education or anti-public education.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, Randi, you heard this. What do you make of that argument?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Right.

So, at the end of the day, what Rick is ignoring is that 23 states have actually reduced their investment in public education since 2008. And what has happened here is that what DeVos advocates is a zero sum game, take the money from public schools.

So, what’s happened in Detroit? Kids have huge class sizes. The buildings are decrepit. The books that they use are from the ’60s or the ’70s. So, what happens is that they don’t have a real viable experience.

And, at the same time, what has happened is that there’s been private money that’s gone into charters and gone into vouchers to actually overpromise parents things that they ultimately don’t get.

The place that has the choice are the schools, not the parents. And the point I’m trying to make is that look at the record. The record in terms of vouchers — we have had vouchers for 25 years. They don’t do very well for kids. And the record in terms of the for-profit charters is that the for-profits have made a lot of money, but kids have suffered.

So, why are we in the midst of destabilizing, destabilizing, destabilizing, as opposed to rolling up our sleeves and actually doing what works? We have to help every child have a safe, welcoming neighborhood public school.

Parents want other option, that’s their right. But we have a responsibility to help kids have qualified, high-quality neighborhood public schools.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Rick, one of the arguments that often is made here, it seems like there is a tension between autonomy and accountability.

Everyone wants autonomy, so that schools can innovate and do what they want to do, but there should also be accountability, so that, if teachers are not doing a great job, that somehow we can hold them accountability.

DeVos has been very strong on autonomy for schools, but it seems like her record indicates she’s much less interested in holding those schools accountable when they don’t perform.

RICK HESS: So, I think she’s mixed on accountability.

Jeb Bush, who is probably the high priest of Republican educational accountability, made an incredibly strong statement on her behalf in the last day or two. She’s been on the board of his Foundation for Educational Excellence. She’s supported calls for high standards.

But I think you’re right that there is mixed feelings, certainly on the conservative side of the spectrum, about how much we want to have simple, centralized measures determine whether or not a school is good for a kid.

It’s interesting to hear, you know, Randi talking about this, because the AFT also has, I think, voiced concerns about overreliance on simple reading and math scores as the be-all and end-all for deciding whether schools are doing a good job.

And yet, when we talk about educational accountability, simply because it is so complex to try to hold accountable 100,000 schools, because we have so few kind of good, objective measures, it often that winds up putting more and more weight on reading and math scores.

And I think, for me, part of the promise of school choice is that if educators can create a school that families want to send their kid to, and looking at the test data and looking at other metrics of achievement, families think that this school is best for their kids, I guess I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we should — that we should religiously try to deny families a school that they think is going to be best for their kid.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Randi Weingarten, Rick Hess, thank you both very much.

SHARE VIA TEXT