What Does The Appointment of Betsy DeVos Mean For Public Schools?



Earlier this month, President-Elect Donald Trump named Michigan's Betsy DeVos to be the next secretary of education. DeVos, a strong advocate for school vouchers and school choice in her home state, is expected to bring this topic to center stage when she begins her term in Washington in the coming months.

Israel Ortega of Forbes Magazine listed five ways that DeVos could become a transformative leader. First, Ortega suggests DeVos could reauthorize the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a federally-funded voucher program to support low-income families by providing them with private school options. Second, DeVos could redirect Federal Title 1 dollars to follow low-income students, not schools, thus allowing families to use these funds to cover tuition costs at private schools. Third, Ortega suggests that DeVos could reform the network of schools for Native American students by providing families with education savings accounts to pay tuition at private schools. Fourth, DeVos could turn Washington, D.C. into an all-choice city by providing families greater access to charter schools. Lastly, Ortega suggests that DeVos could continue to be a champion of charter schools. Ortega writes that DeVos could “promote the innovations in charters and invest in research and development so the lessons we learn in our schools can be replicated and scaled in traditional schools.”

It comes as no surprise that with Trump’s selection, he is making a strong case for the privatization of our nation’s schools, implying that a business-model approach will improve our schools for all students. This is not a new concept. Nearly two decades ago, ice cream executive turned education advocate Jamie Vollmer tried unsuccessfully to duplicate his successful business model to schools. In an Education Week article back in 2002, Vollmer recounted his story of how he began a talk with an auditorium of teachers by stating, “If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!” He went on to describe how he transformed a small ice cream company in the mid 1980’s into one that had a highly successful product line of blueberry ice cream. His undoing came at the end of his speech when a teacher asked him this simple question: “When you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?” Reluctantly, he responded with “I send them back.” In that moment, he knew he was defeated, and the teacher jumped right down his throat, stating, “That’s right! We can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school!” From that point forward, Vollmer learned a valuable lesson. He wrote, “For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.”

This past week, NPR reported on Chalkbeat’s Managing Editor Philissa Cramer thoughts on what DeVos’s legacy as Secretary of Education may look like. Cramer started by pointing out that Michigan’s charter schools are some of the least regulated in the country, and went on to note that a huge proportion of schools there are for-profit schools that do not work in the best interest of the students that they serve. When asked about the potential for DeVos to divert Title 1 dollars to school voucher programs, Cramer suggested that this would be a very large change to how schools are funded, and it would require all states to chip in financial support as well to keep such a program afloat. She stated, “Her efforts have been successful in some places, less successful in others. So it remains to be seen how they could actually make that happen.”

With DeVos at the helm, the future of public education is uncertain, and the impact for the changes that may follow will be felt not only by the students and their families but also by teachers and teacher unions, the backbone of the organizational structure in most of America’s schools today. Last week, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the nation’s largest teacher union the National Education Association (NEA), had this to say about the impending appointment of DeVos: “Every day, educators use their voice to advocate for every student to reach his or her full potential. We believe that the chance for the success of a child should not depend on winning a charter lottery, being accepted by a private school, or living in the right ZIP code. We have, and will continue, to fight for all students to have a great public school in their community and the opportunity to succeed no matter their backgrounds or circumstances.” It seems through Garcia’s words that DeVos may face an uphill battle when she begins her term next month.

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.


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