Betsy DeVos Gets an F

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Education one year ago this week.  The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools marks this anniversary with a Report Card on her tenure.

To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements, and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work.

In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfil its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.

We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.  Our Report Card, and an explanation of the assessment follow.  

Public schools are the vehicle through which we guarantee all children a free education from kindergarten through 12th grade.  In our collective interest, we promise that poor children and rich children, students with disabilities, students of color, immigrant and non-immigrant, will have access to an equitable, quality public education, paid for by taxpayers and controlled by local communities.

Yet across the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children.  And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience. But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfil this mandate. Indeed, she is taking the Department in a dangerous direction, down a path that benefits private, political and religious interests at the expense of public school children across the country. The Trump/DeVos agenda hits Black and Brown students, and low income students the hardest, threatening to undermine the quality of education in these communities.

This week, on the first anniversary of her confirmation as the head of the Department of Education, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is releasing a Report Card on DeVos’ record on four specific roles of the Department.  What follows is a longer explanation of our evaluation.  

The Role of the U.S. Department of Education
Among the stated purposes of the U.S. Department of Education are:1      

  • Filling gaps that exist in state and local resourcing of schools and districts;
  • Ensuring equal access to public education for all students;
  • Enforcing federal laws prohibiting discrimination in programs that receive federal funds;2
  • Collecting data and disseminating research on what works in education, to help strengthen our educational system. 

The Secretary of Education—a Cabinet-level appointee—is charged with leading the DOE towards these ends.

President Trump and Betsy DeVos Are Seeking to Undermine the Department’s Historic Equity-Based Mission
President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education was quickly met with widespread opposition. Indeed, Betsy DeVos was a purely ideological pick.  As with many of the President’s cabinet nominations, DeVos has repeatedly disparaged the agency (and the institution) she has been elevated to lead.
 A billionaire Republican donor with no experience as an educator, administrator, parent or student in America’s public schools, DeVos rode to Washington on the heels of three decades of anti-public school activism in her home state of Michigan.3  She was a power-player in the state Republican Party, dispensing millions in personal political contributions to influence votes supporting charter and religious schools.  She founded, and/or has served as a director of several pro-voucher organizations at the state and national level. Her portfolio also includes donations to anti-gay organizations4  and a worrisome tendency to merge her personal evangelical Christian faith with the functions of government--having once asserted that she believed public policy should “advance God’s kingdom.”5    
Over a million Americans called on their U.S. Senators oppose her confirmation. In the end, it took an unprecedented tie-breaking vote by the Vice President to install Betsy DeVos at the head of the DOE.
In her first year at the Department, DeVos has proven to be disinterested in, or actually hostile to her agency’s mission.  Instead of taking steps to strengthen public schools, and to ensure equity and access, she has proposed slashing budgets. Instead of fighting to protect students, she has hamstrung her own Office for Civil Rights’ ability to conduct thorough investigations of claims of discrimination and has eliminated scores of civil rights regulations.  Instead of promoting what works, she has declared her allegiance to one thing only:  privatization. 
Secretary DeVos has failed to advance the mission of the Department of Education in each of the four areas noted above. 

  • Supplementing state and local resources of schools and districts, particularly those serving low-income students and students of color.

 The Department of Education provides only about 8% of funding for public schools. The vast majority of school funding comes through state and local sources. But state and local funding formulas result in significant resource disparities between schools.  A key role for federal education programs is offering what the Department calls an “emergency response system,”— a means of “filling the gaps”6 where state and local dollars are not flowing proportionately to the students and schools that need them most.
This federal support is critical for schools serving poor children. Today, over half of all public school students are living in poverty.7   Yet over the past decade, state and local funding for public schools has declined.8  Federal support to ensure the schools in low-income communities have the resources they need is critical. 
Within three months of taking office, Secretary DeVos announced her intention to slash funding for disadvantaged students and schools.

  • In her budget proposal, released last May, DeVos called for $9.2 billion in cuts for the Department of Education. 
  • Among the programs targeted for elimination was the only federal funding source devoted exclusively for before- and after-school programs, drug and violence-prevention programs and more.
  • Federal support for community schools—schools that provide additional health and social services for low-income students and their families—was targeted for elimination. 
  • A $2.1 billion program to lower class size and provide professional development for teachers was cut in the Secretary’s budget.
  • While these programs were cut, DeVos proposed an additional $150 million in funding for the federal Charter Schools Program, which helps drive the rapid expansion of charter schools across the country. This rapid expansion of a parallel system of privately-operated but publicly funded schools actually creates fiscal instability, drawing much-needed resources away from public schools.9

Secretary DeVos’ budget proposals signal her desire to dismantle many of the Department’s programs that were explicitly created to “fill the gaps” by supplementing the resources available to schools and students in poverty-stricken communities. At the same time, her support for rapid expansion of charter schools exacerbates budget crises in these same communities.

  •  Ensuring Access and Equity in Public Schools for All Students

According to the Department’s website, anti-poverty legislation and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought about the emergence of the Department’s equal access mission.10   This mission includes ensuring that publicly funded schools are not discriminating against students by race, sex or disability.
The Secretary’s educational priority—privatization--explicitly allows public funding to go to unregulated private schools that pick and choose who they serve and contribute to increased segregation in our schools.  

  • The ACLU has released the results of investigations in California11 and Arizona,12 each of which showed that hundreds of charter schools in those states use exclusionary—and even illegal—enrollment practices that effectively discriminate against, or deter certain students from attending.
  • The Civil Rights Project reported that “the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools.”13
  • The vast majority of voucher-accepting schools across the country are private religious schools that openly discriminate in their enrollment and retention policies. For example, a Century Foundation investigation of North Carolina voucher schools found that many of them explicitly bar access to students from families who are not of the same faith tradition as the school, as well as LGBT students. Many of the schools require adherence to rigid moral codes both inside and outside the school.
  • Voucher programs too often are inaccessible to very poor families as well.  For example, the Century Foundation also found that many North Carolina schools have tuition and fees that extend well beyond the maximum amount of a voucher in that state, and do not provide transportation, thus limiting the ability of many low-income children to attend.14

By promoting an educational strategy that is exclusionary and discriminatory, DeVos signals that under her leadership, the Department of Education will turn its back on the promise of equitable and accessible public education for all students.

  • Protecting Students’ Civil Rights                                   

The Department of Education has a direct interest in protecting students from all forms of discrimination.  But Secretary DeVos has been systematically eliminating protections for students of color, students with disabilities, LGBT students and victims of sexual assault.  She is reducing the capacity and the role of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights, and filling its top positions with individuals whose professional careers are antithetical to civil rights enforcement.

  • Within the first seven months of DeVos’s tenure, the Department eliminated over 70 regulations designed to protect students with disabilities from discrimination in schools.15
  • The Department is now considering eliminating guidance aimed at reducing the disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions on Black and Brown students and students with disabilities.
  • On February 22, 2017—less than one month in to her tenure, President Trump and the Department of Education announced the elimination of federal protections of the rights of transgender students.16  
  • DeVos has proposed eliminating as many as 46 positions from the OCR, increasing caseloads for staff tasked with investigating reports of discrimination or abuse.17   Her appointments to lead the Office for Civil Rights have been challenged by civil rights and free speech organizations.18
  • The OCR has narrowed the scope of investigations in to possible discrimination against students, allowing cases to be reviewed as “one-off” incidents, rather than indications of systemic denial of civil rights.19  

While the Secretary dismantles the Department’s role as a watchdog for student civil rights, she has remained silent in the face of new reports of discrimination, violence and shameful neglect in the nation’s public schools. For example:

  • The Alliance for Education Justice, a network of student and youth-led organizing groups, has confirmed at least six physical assaults on students by police officers since Betsy DeVos took office.
  • In January, 2018, students and teachers in 60 Baltimore schools sat in unheated classrooms through record cold temperatures in the region.20 The city’s teacher’s union called conditions “inhumane,” as photographs emerged of students huddled in jackets and mittens.  
  • Five former education secretaries have denounced the President’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But DeVos has remained loyal to the President, and largely silent.  In September of 2017, DeVos managed to say simply, “We are a nation of compassion, and we are also a nation of laws.”21  That is small reassurance from the 139,000 middle- and high school students facing possible deportation under the Trump Administration’s assault on DACA.22

When the U.S. Secretary of Education remains silent on incidents and actions like these, she misses an opportunity to lead by sending a message that discrimination and neglect of public school students and educators will not be tolerated.  We condemn her actions, and her failure to speak out.   

  • Promoting Evidence-Based Strategies for School Improvement   

Betsy DeVos has undermined faith in the Department of Education’s role as a reliable source of information on what works in public education. Instead, the Department has been transformed into an ideological advocacy organization.  
DeVos ridicules those who oppose her privatization agenda, calling them “flat-earthers,”23 “Chicken Littles,” “sycophants,” and “opponents of parents.”24  

“Defenders of the status quo like to paint me as a “voucher only proponent,” but the truth is I’ve long-supported public charter schools as a quality option for students.”
Secretary DeVos Prepared Remarks National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, June 13, 2017.

Call them what she may, the evidence is in on the effectiveness of charter schools and vouchers in improving educational outcomes for students: 

 

  • An evaluation of the only existing federally funded voucher program, in Washington, DC, found “no conclusive evidence that participation in the program affected student achievement.”25
  • In Ohio, research found that students who used vouchers to attend private schools fared worse, academically, compared to their peers attending public schools. These impacts, evaluators found, appeared to persist over time.26
  • In Louisiana, a study27 found that the State’s voucher program had a negative impact on participating students’ academic achievement in the first two years of its operation.28
  • Charter schools, too, show uneven academic success at best.  Multiple studies have shown that, on average, charter school students perform no better than similar public school students, and often much worse.  For example, a University of Minnesota study found that Chicago charter school students perform worse than students in the city’s public schools.29

We are continually learning more about what does work to improve both teaching and learning climates in our schools.  Sustainable, comprehensive community schools are proven to better support students—especially those coming from disadvantaged communities where external barriers to learning must be addressed along with schoolwide reform.30  
It is clear that neither charter schools nor vouchers provide stronger educational outcomes for disadvantaged students.  DeVos’s singular advocacy for privatization instead of a comprehensive agenda for strengthening our public schools is undermining the role of the Department of Education as promoting evidence-based strategies for improving the content and delivery of public education to the nation’s 50 million school children.

Conclusion
The role of the Secretary of Education is to further the mission of the agency he/she leads, and to serve as the nation’s highest profile supporter of our system of public schools. Since day one, Betsy DeVos has failed to assume that role.  Indeed she show every sign of intentionally dismantling it.
While DeVos is not the first Secretary of Education to promote privatization, she has taken the effort to a new level with her aggressive efforts to promulgate and deregulate privatized schools. She has advocated slashing funds to disadvantaged students and schools and eliminating programs that support public school teachers.  She has promoted schools that explicitly discriminate or bar enrollment of certain students. She has hamstrung her own Office for Civil Rights, and curtailed its ability to adequately investigate claims of discrimination in our schools—even rescinding guidelines protecting children of color, students with disabilities, victims of sexual assault and LGBT students.  Instead, she has led an ideological crusade for privatization—a model of education reform that fails in multiple ways, to address the needs of the nation’s 50 million students. 
DeVos is “playing to her base,” which is Donald Trump’s base as well—those who see gold in the “greenfield opportunity” of privatization, those intent on destroying labor unions, and those seeking to “advance God’s Kingdom” through public policy.
Betsy DeVos gets an “F” for her leadership of the U.S. Department of Education. 

 

 

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools 
The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) is a national coalition of organized parents, educators and students.  Together, our eleven partner organizations represent over seven million Americans, working to protect our public schools, and to demand that every public school and every student, have the resources and supports they need to succeed.  We condemn the historic and ongoing disinvestment in public schools serving African American and Latino students.  We oppose two decades of so-called education “reform” that has sabotaged these schools: creating budget crises, stripping them of teachers, counselors, school nurses, adequate facilities—and then closing them when they struggle to serve their students.  We know that austerity, incessant testing regimes to rate and rank schools and state takeovers of schools and districts are intentional strategies to undermine public support for public schools, to facilitate the transfer of tax dollars to privatized schools, and to disenfranchise parents, educators and communities.  The impacts of these strategies are felt most harshly in schools serving African American and Latino students. We assert:  Education Justice is Racial Justice. And we need more of both.

ENDNOTES


1 “The Federal Role in Education,” U.S. Department of Education website. Available at: https://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/fed/role.html

2 “Office for Civil Rights,” U.S. Department of Education website. Available at: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/know.html 

3 “DeVos’ Michigan schools experiment gets poor grades,” Politico, December 9, 2016. Available at: https://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/betsy-devos-michigan-school-experiment-232399

4 “Trump’s education secretary pick supported anti-gay causes,” Politico, November 25, 2016. Available at: https://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/betsy-devos-education-secretary-civil-rights-gay-transgender-students-231837

6 “The Federal Role in Education,” U.S. Department of Education.  Available at: https://www2.ed.gov/print/about/overview/fed/role.html

7 “A New Majority: Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools,” Southern Education Foundation, January, 2015. Available at: http://www.southerneducation.org/getattachment/4ac62e27-5260-47a5-9d02-14896ec3a531/A-New-Majority-2015-Update-Low-Income-Students-Now.aspx

8 “A Punishing Decade for School Funding,” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. November 29, 2017. Available at: https://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/a-punishing-decade-for-school-funding

9 “Charter Schools cause growing risk for urban public school districts,” Moody’s Investors Service,  October 15, 2013. Available at: https://www.scribd.com/document/192042915/Moodys-Charter-School-Risk

10 “The Federal Role in Education,” U.S. Department of Education.  Available at: https://www2.ed.gov/print/about/overview/fed/role.html

11 “Unequal Access: How Some California Charter Schools Illegally Restrict Enrollment,”  ACLU of Southern California, July 2016. Available at: https://www.aclusocal.org/en/publications/unequal-access

12 “Schools Choosing Students,” Arizona ACLU, December 14, 2017. Available at: https://www.acluaz.org/en/SchoolsChoosingStudents

13 “Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards,” The Civil Rights Project.   January, 2010.  Available at: https://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/choice-without-equity-2009-report

14 “Second-Class Students: When Vouchers Exclude,” The Century Foundation, January, 2017.  Available at: https://tcf.org/content/commentary/second-class-students-vouchers-exclude/ 

15   “DeVos rescinds 72 guidance documents outlining rights for disabled students,” The Washington Post, October 21, 2017.   Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2017/10/21/devos-rescinds-72-guidance-documents-outlining-rights-for-disabled-students/?utm_term=.123dfcab52b2

16 “Trump Rescinds Rules on Bathrooms for Transgender Students,” The New York Times, February 22, 2017.   Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/us/politics/devos-sessions-transgender-students-rights.html?mcubz=0&_r=0

18 “DeVos Civil Rights Office Pick Once Claimed Discrimination for Being White,”  NBC News,  April 14, 2017. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/devos-civil-rights-office-pick-once-claimed-discrimination-being-white-n746786 . See also, “Trump’s pick to lead Education Department’s civil rights office is opposed by civil rights advocates,” Think Progress, January 19, 2018. Available at: https://thinkprogress.org/kenneth-marcus-nomination-69cbe249cd9f/

19 “OCR Instructions to the Field re Scope of Complaints,” internal memo, June 8, 2017. Available at: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3863019/doc00742420170609111824.pdf

20 “’This is Unacceptable.’ Baltimore Students Forced to Bundle Up in Frigid Classrooms,” TIME, January 4, 2018. Available at: http://time.com/5088435/baltimore-schools-cold-winter-storm/

21 “Betsy DeVos offers first comment on DACA ending, says DREAMers should ‘take courage’” Chalkbeat, September 8, 2017. Available at: https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/us/2017/09/08/betsy-devos-offers-first-comment-on-daca-ending-says-dreamers-should-take-courage/

22 “A Profile of Current DACA Recipients by Education, Industry and Occupation,”  Migration Policy Institute, November 2017.  Available at:  file:///C:/Users/Leigh/Downloads/DACA-Recipients-Work-Education-Nov2017-FS-FINAL%20(1).pdf

23 “Prepared Remarks by the U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to the American Federation for Children’s National Policy Summit,” May 22, 2017. Available at:  https://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/prepared-remarks-us-secretary-education-betsy-devos-american-federation-childrens-national-policy-summit

24 “Prepared Remarks by the U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to the American Enterprise Institute,” January 16, 2018. Available at: https://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/prepared-remarks-us-education-secretary-betsy-devos-american-enterprise-institute

25 “Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program,” National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, U.S. Department of Education, June, 2010.

26 Figlio, David, Karbownik, Krzysztof, “Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: Selection, Competition, and Performance Effects,” The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, July, 2016.

27 “How Has the Louisiana Scholarship Program Affected Students? A Comprehensive Summary of Effects After Two Years,” Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, February, 2016.

28 Ibid.

29 “Charter Schools in Chicago: No Model for Education Reform,” Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, University of Minnesota Law School.  October, 2014. Available at: http://www.law.umn.edu/sites/law.umn.edu/files/newsfiles/8a690b58/Chicago-Charters-FINAL.pdf

30 “Community Schools as an Effective School Improvement Strategy: A Review of the Evidence,” Learning Policy Institute, December 14, 2017. Available at: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/community-schools-effective-school-improvement-report