Janresseger: Educating Ourselves About Betsy DeVos—Three Essential Articles

Tim Alberta’s profile of Betsy DeVos at POLITICO Magazine humanizes the Secretary of Education. I encourage you to read it, but only if you also read two other recent articles—Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s piece on public education’s real purpose (that Betsy DeVos doesn’t understand)—and Jack Schneider’s analysis of what Betsy DeVos fails to grasp about why the marketplace cannot improve education.

Alberta traveled with DeVos on her beginning-of-school tour in September and has interviewed her on several occasions. He describes two principles on which DeVos has, “fought and funded a generation’s worth of education wars… that parents should be free to send their children wherever they choose, and that tax dollars should follow those students to their new schools.”  He explains that DeVos believes bureaucracy in the Department of Education “smothers creativity, blocks innovation, and slows change to a glacial pace.”

He tells us that DeVos blames her poor performance in her Senate confirmation hearing on those who coached her: “I think I was undercoached… In hindsight, I wish I had a whole lot more information.” Her thinking on this matter makes it all the more puzzling that in her seventh floor office at the U.S. Department of Education, “The towering bookcases lining the rear walls are nearly empty, save for a few scattered trinkets.”  Maybe we all ought to send Betsy DeVos our favorite book on public education—something to help her get up to speed—maybe Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities—or Mike Rose’s Possible Lives—or Anthony Bryk’s Organizing Schools for Improvement—or Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children—or Jack Jennings’ book on Title I, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools—or Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade. There is plenty of material to help her out.

We learn, not surprisingly, that her old school-privatizing friend, Jeb Bush, had the idea for her nomination as Education Secretary: “It was Bush who, in the days after Trump’s stunning victory, asked DeVos whether she had considered serving as education secretary—and who then contacted Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to recommend her for the job. ‘He was really the only person I knew in the transition. He was the best person because he was running it,’ Bush tells me, chuckling. The two ex-governors were on the same page: Bush had worked closely alongside DeVos to advance school-choice initiatives in Florida, and Pence forged a similar alliance with her in Indiana. ‘He made it clear that he was already thinking about Betsy, too,’ Bush says.”

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the National Education Association, just reviewed Betsy DeVos’s recent speech at Paul Peterson’s think tank—the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is part of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. This pro-privatization think tank featured DeVos, who adheres to a libertarian, pro-school choice agenda, as a recent keynoter. Eskelsen-Garcia distinguishes the principles DeVos described in her Harvard speech from the values endorsed by the nation’s largest organization of school teachers.

To DeVos’s endorsement of schools that seek to appeal to select groups of students who might choose them for a special program or service, Eskelsen-Garcia answers: “She doesn’t understand the concept of ‘public’ schools—schools that are open to all students, no matter what language is spoken at home, what the family income is, what their religion or race is, what abilities or disabilities they have, whether they are gay, straight, or transgender. The mission of public schools is to provide opportunities for each and every student who walks through the door….”

To the Education Secretary’s comments that schools shouldn’t be overly controlled by government, Eskelsen-Garcia defends the role of government: “protecting our students and ensuring that they have the opportunities and resources they deserve. We must say no to voucher programs and charter schools that divert taxpayer dollars from the public schools…. We must say no when they are not accountable for how they are spending those dollars and do not comply with commonsense safeguards to protect students. We must say no as it becomes clear how many students in voucher programs are losing ground in math and reading. We must say no even louder when voucher… (schools) undercut civil rights enforcement by picking and choosing which students they want and which students they’ll turn away.”

Eskelsen Garcia castigates DeVos for complaining that supporters of public schooling want to protect a ‘system’ of schools instead of prioritizing children one-by-one as individuals: “Here’s what she doesn’t get: Some ‘systems’ are pretty darned important.  The ‘circulatory system,’ for instance, pumps blood and transports nutrients. The ‘skeletal system’ supports and protects us. The Secretary might not like systems, but they hold us together.”

Like Eskelsen-Garcia, who decries DeVos’s comparison of school choice to the growing lunchtime choices as more and more food trucks have been parking in front of the U.S. Department of Education, Jack Schneider, author of Beyond Test Scores and an Assistant Professor of Education a the College of the Holy Cross, is fascinated with the food-truck metaphor.  He quotes DeVos’s speech at the Harvard Kennedy School: “Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants… But you know what—food trucks started lining the streets to provide options.”  Here is Schneider’s analysis: “In other words, a monopoly became a competitive marketplace and, as hungry staffers flocked to nearby food trucks, the overall food improved for everyone… The moral of the story: everyone wins in a system where people can choose.”

Schneider offers a complex analysis of the reasons parents choosing schools may not be able to make discerning decisions. Parental choice, for the reasons Schneider describes, cannot be counted on to improve schools: “DeVos maintains a relatively unsophisticated view of how markets actually function. The flaws in her vision aren’t just a matter of politics; they are a matter of fact. Start with the fact that school quality cannot be evaluated through a single experience—the way a food truck can be. Products that can be evaluated this way are referred to by economists as ‘experience goods.’ How much do I like this grilled cheese? Give me one minute and I’ll tell you. Education, on the other hand, is largely invisible and reveals its efficacy over time making it a ‘credence good’–more like a surgical procedure than a sandwich. It can often take several months just to get a sense of a new school. In fact, some of us who are decades out of school are still sorting through our thoughts about how much we learned, how positive the social experience was, and whether we benefited in the ways we might have wished.”

Schneider continues—explaining the complexity of education: “(E)ducation is a socially-supported process for cultivating human improvement—an ambitious and multifaceted enterprise that takes place over many years.  This grand scope presents a measurement challenge….”  There’s also a problem with attribution. A child may love reading because his parents read to him. Or her preschool teacher read to her. Or maybe there was a wonderful story hour at the public library. Or perhaps the child’s love for reading can be attributed to one particular teacher or a school as a whole. Nobody can accurately attribute each child’s learning to any particular influence.

Schneider describes another “principal-agent” problem: “Parents are the agents for their children, who are the principals who attend the school: “Such a problem occurs when one person (the agent) has the power to decide on behalf of another person (the principal) who will bear the impact of that decision. In a choice-based model, parents are the agents, acting on behalf of the child.  Yet is is important to recall that parents do not spend their days inside schools….”  Hence parents are vulnerable to all the marketing that is integral to school choice—over the airwaves, in brochures that arrive in the mail, on the back of city buses.

And, Schneider reminds us: “education is a positional good. While some of the fruits of education are absolute—students either know how to read or do not—its usefulness in promoting social status is completely relative. As a result, parents can be drawn into anxious competition against each other for comparative advantage, and in the process may overlook the issue of school quality entirely. To make matters worse, this competitive approach ensures that however many winners the system produces, there will be far more losers, even if quality is the same across all schools.”

If you read all three pieces—Tim Alberta’s at POLITICOLily Eskelsen-Garcia’s, and Jack Schneider’s, you will discover that Schneider’s concluding paragraph sums it all up: “Betsy DeVos may be portrayed by critics as an ill-informed billionaire naif. True, her knowledge of the public education system is incomplete, and she has revealed her ignorance on more than one occasion. But it must be remembered that DeVos is a hardnosed adherent to free market ideology. When she compares schools to food trucks, she isn’t committing a gaffe—she is communicating her dogma to non-believers. Thus, as DeVos continues to make her appeal, we have a duty to take her seriously and to think critically about what she’s selling. A choice is coming, and the future of public education hangs in the balance.”

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working to improve the public schools that serve 50 million of our children, reduce standardized testing, ensure attention to vast opportunity gaps, advocate for schools that welcome all children, and...