Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks to a packed crowd at an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference July 20, 2017, in at the Hyatt Regency in Denver. (Gabriel Scarlett/Denver Post/AP)
Quoting from the late British Prime Minister Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently said that there is “no such thing” as society, trashed the federal government and hailed the spread of school “choice.” She was speaking at the annual conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and espoused a philosophy that mirrored that of the powerful conservative organization.
If you don’t know about ALEC, you should. It is a member organization of corporate lobbyists and conservative state legislators who craft “model legislation” on issues important to them and then help shepherd it through legislatures. It describes itself as being dedicated to promoting “limited government, free markets and federalism,” though the New York Times called it essentially a “stealth business lobbyist.”
When it comes to big education issues, there appears to be no light between DeVos and ALEC, so let’s take a look at how ALEC views individual states and their schools. Every year ALEC puts out an education “grades and school choice report card” that ranks states on principles important to the group. The latest report card was issued seven months ago, and it is highly revealing. The introduction says that the states were graded in six categories — “academic standards, charter schools, homeschool regulation burden, private school choice, teacher quality, and digital learning,” but it concedes that the most weight went to charters and vouchers “because they represent the parent-centered, choice-driven future of education in the 21st century.”
DeVos has also made clear that school choice is her priority and that “accountability” is more about offering parents private options than about how well those options provide services to students.
So, on ALEC’s report card, the state that comes in last — at No. 51, because ALEC apparently decided to make the District of Columbia a state for the sake of its ranking, even though it would not support legislation doing so — is Nebraska, where more than 45 percent of adults have some kind of college degree. Nebraska, however, does not allow any charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately run, often by for-profit companies — nor does it allow vouchers or voucher-like programs, which use public money to pay for public and private school tuition and other educational expenses.
No. 50 is Wyoming, which has a high school graduation rate of nearly 90 percent but also doesn’t allow charters or vouchers, gets a bad score on digital learning and on home schooling regulation. Its academic standards were rated B-plus, but that didn’t much matter.
The No. 1 state is Arizona, which this year passed a new law that allows all schoolchildren to apply for “scholarships” that allow them to use public money for religious and private school tuition. It has low scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and a low graduation rate, but that didn’t it stop from taking the top spot.
No. 2 is Florida, the state that DeVos likes to praise — not because she has a house there and her family owns a professional basketball team there but for its charter schools and voucher-like programs, which have plowed billions of public dollars into private and religious school tuition.
Maryland, with some of the nation’s best public schools, is ranked 41st, because though charters schools are allowed, there are very few of them, and the same is true regarding vouchers and voucher-like programs. Virginia is ranked 48th. It allows charters, but there are only nine in the state, and it has limited private school tuition programs. But Washington, D.C., a consistently troubled urban school district, is ranked sixth; it has a thriving charter sector that threatens to overtake the traditional schools in terms of enrollment and the only federally founded voucher program in the country.
You get the idea. It’s all about choice. As is DeVos.
As Diane Ravitch noted on her blog here, the ALEC report card differs significantly from the one released by Ravitch’s nonprofit advocacy group, the Network for Public Education. On that rating, Arizona earned an F.
The Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit watchdog group, says ALEC is intending to ramp up efforts to spread vouchers and voucher-like programs in states across the country and roll back Title IX protections for sexual assault victims.
DeVos’s Education Department is examining possible changes to Obama-era guidance on enforcing Title IX in school sexual assault cases, and ALEC wants to give those accused of the assaults more rights.
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