When it comes to the politics of education, 2017 is already proving to be a memorable year.
Over the past couple of months, nearly all of my social media channels have been overtaken by posts that I have lumped together and labeled “DeVoUTRAGEs.”
Some snippets: “She’s never been a teacher.” “She’s a plagiarist.” “She paid for her position.”
“She doesn’t believe in public education.”
By now, you’ve probably guessed that I’m talking about our newest U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. You’ve guessed this because it seems that wherever you turn–Facebook, Twitter, cable news, blogs, newspapers, streets, and schools—there’s considerable amounts of inches, air time and conversation given to this polarizing figure who is known in education circles for her quest to privatize public education.
Some are disturbed by DeVos’ very personal attributes—the fact that she’s never attended or taught in a public school and has very little experience with any sort of public school system; the fact that she has donated millions of dollars to the state and federal campaigns of lawmakers who support her ideology when it comes to educating children; and that at her confirmation hearing, she exhibited a very poor understanding of what the U.S. Department of Education is actually charged with overseeing.
Many are also very concerned with her policy platform. DeVos has long supported publicly- funded private school vouchers, the proliferation of charter schools, and advancing a Christian agenda through education. DeVos also supports virtual charter schools—so much so that she appeared to tell some falsehoods about their graduation rates during her confirmation hearing, parroting the virtual charter industry’s PR spin rather than the actual rates used by the feds for accountability purposes, which are much lower.
What’s remarkable to me about all of this is that so many people have found their political voices when contemplating the idea that someone like Betsy DeVos could be — and will be — charged with the care of children’s education.
Also remarkable to me? Most of what DeVos advocates is already in place here in North Carolina.
So where, I wondered, has the DeVos-level outrage been here at home?
Before you throw a brick at your computer screen, let me acknowledge that there certainly has been a good bit of an uproar here in North Carolina as our state has tumbled toward the bottom in national rankings on educator pay and classroom spending. Efforts to dismantle public education probably garner more public outcry than any other issue, if clicks and retweets of education stories are any indication. Education touches everyone, and when it comes to policies that could shortchange children, nearly everyone cares—deeply.
But as North Carolina’s public school system suffered from systematic disinvestment, a concurrent movement steadily took hold as lawmakers pushed one education reform after another that each seek a common end: the privatization of education.
Here in North Carolina, we already live in a DeVos world.
Folks are furious that DeVos has spent decades pushing an agenda that promotes private and religious school vouchers—an agenda that has surprisingly led her to the position of America’s public education secretary, where she is now poised to craft and drive federal public education policy. What could this mean for the future of our public schools?
Look no further than North Carolina.
Devos’ philanthropic efforts and her work running the American Federation for Children (AFC) have helped pave the way for North Carolina’s own school voucher program, which allows low-income families to use taxpayer-funded $4,200 vouchers each year for tuition at private, mostly religious schools that are not held to robust transparency and accountability standards and can discriminate against those who don’t pass a religious litmus test or identify as LGBTQ by barring them from enrolling.
In 2012, Democratic and Republican North Carolina lawmakers who were on board with the idea of school vouchers received more than $90,000 in campaign donations from AFC. The next year lawmakers enacted the school voucher program, which started out with an annual state commitment of just $10 million.
Then after winning a court case challenging the constitutionality of the program, lawmakers voted to significantly expand the school voucher program even though they had no data before them to indicate one way or another whether students leaving public schools using vouchers were actually doing better at private schools. The school voucher program is now scheduled to grow to $145 million annually by 2027. Between now and then, North Carolina will have spent nearly $1 billion on an unaccountable taxpayer-funded program.
The state’s top recipient of school vouchers, Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville, has received nearly $1 million in taxpayer funds since 2014. Last week it was reported that the state Department of Revenue arrested Trinity Christian’s athletic director following an investigation that turned up enough evidence to charge him with embezzling hundreds of thousands of employee tax withholdings over a seven year period.
It’s an unsurprising turn of events given that the state hasn’t enacted strong oversight measures for the school voucher program. Virtually anyone running a private school can receive publicly-funded school vouchers—most schools don’t have to routinely provide a look at how they balance their books or provide any robust evidence that their students are learning.
Now that DeVos is no longer just a private fundraiser pushing school vouchers at the state level but is now the federal education secretary, can she “voucherize” the entire public education system in the United States? No, not alone — besides, most of public education is financed at the state and local level. President Trump’s proposal to pour $20 billion into vouchers is contingent on state and local actors matching dollars and then some. As Vox’s Libby Nelson explains, DeVos could find some other creative ways to get federal dollars into voucher-like programs, but really the onus is on state legislatures to move the voucher agenda.
But if North Carolina’s steady march toward a school voucher program that continues to expand with very few accountability and transparency measures in place is any indication, DeVos has levers outside of her role as federal education secretary to try to keep the momentum going for state-born school voucher programs. And that is worth watching.
DeVos favors charter schools as well, although we’ve heard less about those from her as of late. Nonetheless, charter schools have been part of her philanthropic efforts over time and charter school advocates in North Carolina are enthusiastic about her confirmation as education secretary.
From 1997 until 2011, North Carolina experimented with charter schools, keeping a cap on how many can operate here at 100 schools. Charters are public schools too, but they are given more latitude in hiring and management practices and can do innovative things with their academic offerings—all in the name of improving education writ large.
But in 2011 something changed. Lawmakers did away with the cap on how many charter schools can operate here and since then, the charter school sector has grown at a fairly rapid rate—now at 167 schools. One effect of this expansion has been an an ever-increasing squeeze on public school budgets, which has in turn touched off a years-long fight at the legislature on how public dollars should flow to charter schools.
Meanwhile, resources and increased oversight have not grown concurrently with the charter school sector’s expansion, however; still a tiny group of people in Raleigh is charged with overseeing what is now approaching double the number of charters. And, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), recent legislation weakens charter school accountability and oversight and allows bad schools to stay open longer than they should be allowed.
A number of charter schools have suddenly closed in recent times, sometimes leaving students without an academic home in the middle of the school year. Poor governance and financial problems most commonly plague charters, and robust accountability and transparency measures still seem to be lacking as the industry experiences rapid growth. For-profit charter chain operators can run these schools and shield how they spend tax dollars behind a curtain—and lawmakers haven’t done much to force them to be more transparent.
DeVos, whose philanthropic efforts have trickled down to North Carolina’s school choice movement, also turned to the charter school model to try to save Detroit’s public school system. It didn’t work.
Despite those poor results, Betsy DeVos and her family contributed this past summer “$1.45 million to Michigan GOP lawmakers and the state party after the Republican-led legislature derailed a bipartisan provision that would have provided more charter school oversight in Detroit,” according to an editor at the Detroit Free Press.
As education secretary, DeVos will at times be charged with providing guidance on charter school oversight and accountability. The federal department of education also provide grants to support states’ charter school sectors. North Carolina lost its bid last year to get federal funding for its charter schools, but advocates hope DeVos will give its pitch another look—in spite of the fact that some say the state hasn’t done enough to ensure our charter school sector is adequately accountable, transparent and holds up a high enough bar for opening a charter.
The Detroit Free Press’ Stephen Henderson writes:
“What Detroit needs are better, high-quality choices — public, charter, whatever.
But DeVos and her family have stood in the way of improving what we have. They’ve stood for the charter industry and its middling results, over our kids.”
With an education secretary like Betsy DeVos, can we expect her to fight for the kids—or the for-profit charter school operators? Her track record suggests the latter.
Virtual charter schools
During Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings, she had a surprising response to Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wa) question about why students’ academic performance at virtual charter schools is so poor.
DeVos responded by saying, in fact, things are going quite well—and she cited seven virtual school’s graduation rates that, she said, were above 90 percent.
The problem with those figures? They’re not correct.
Those graduation rates that DeVos cited were in some cases more than double than what they truly are. She was citing statistics that those schools’ for-profit operator, K12, Inc. uses when promoting these schools. DeVos herself was once an investor in K12, Inc., which has been widely criticized for alarmingly high student dropout rates and academic outcomes that are so bad that one study said it was as if students attended school for an entire year and learned nothing.
The real graduation rates for those virtual online schools are closer to 50 percent.
DeVos supports fudging the numbers to present a sunny side of virtual schools that doesn’t appear to exist.
If she supports that kind of activity at the federal level, that’s an endorsement for similar misrepresentation at the state level, too.
In North Carolina, home to two new virtual online charter schools — one backed by K12, Inc and the other backed by Pearson — things are getting off to a rocky start. Last year the schools each received Ds on the A-F school grading scale and both schools had abysmal student academic growth scores.
Notably, the schools’ dropout rates have also been quite high, bumping up against the statutory maximum they are allowed to have—but a recent legislative fix allows the virtual charters to hide their true student dropout rates by letting them remove various types of students from the equation.
Sounds like a move out of DeVos’ own playbook.
DeVos, come on down
North Carolina’s GOP is so excited to see that Betsy DeVos has become the federal education secretary, they’ve already extended an invitation for her to come to North Carolina.
“Republicans invite DeVos to North Carolina for advice on expanding school choice,” was the headline in the News & Observer earlier this month.
“We look forward to showing her North Carolina’s success, and examine ways how we can expand school choice with a now willing federal government,” said state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes.
But it appears that Betsy DeVos has been dispensing her advice to North Carolina’s top proponents of school privatization for years now. Many have taken her ideas—and in one way or another, her dollars—to implement her most valued reforms. The DeVos family personally spent $22,350 last year on state campaigns in North Carolina, and funnelled millions to U.S. Senator Richard Burr, who voted for DeVos to become education secretary.
Last year alone, DeVos’ American Federation for children contributed $450,000 to a PAC associated with Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which is arguably the loudest advocate at the statehouse for school privatization reforms. Those dollars trickled down to a number of state lawmakers campaigns.
As a result of DeVos efforts—along with those of other school privatization advocates—hundreds of millions of public dollars now flow to school vouchers, charter schools and virtual charter schools.
So when she does come to visit, it will be more like a welcome home party for DeVos. North Carolina has been her playground for years.