Letter to Betsy (#1): Dance with the Ones Who Brung Him

Hey, Bets.

Before I start: My parents loved Amway products and I still think SA8, LOC, Pursue, and Trizyme are the awesome. Please give my best to your father-in-law. Now, to business.

Congrats on being a relatively uncontroversial Trump cabinet pick. You have been subjected to all sorts of advice, I know. But I have some qualifications that are not often found in combination.  I am the only college graduate in my family. I teach three subjects at a Title I high school.  I voted for Trump. You’re 0 for 3 thus far.

Plus, while I have no money, fame, or influence, I’m an original thinker.  You…aren’t. I’ve reviewed a number of interviews you’ve given before your nomination. I’ve read your quotes on education. Every comment you’ve made was said by others first. You’re not unintelligent. It’s just that up to now, your primary task hasn’t involved thinking, but rather signing. The education policy field is comprised of the occasional thinker, ideologically-driven funders, and far too many hacks grovelling for  whatever notion gets them the check. You’re the one in the middle.

So your contribution to education has been, literally, contributions, the checks you’ve written to further your conservative values through education reform, and therein lies a potential problem. Education reform was born out of the conservative movement, and education reform, traditional conservatives and the neo-liberals, went all in on Never Trump.  I mean, y’all didn’t even try to be nice. But then Trump won, and wow, talk about a lucky break: education is one of the areas that Trump doesn’t care about, so is happy to give out jobs to conservatives like kibble to puppies.

But precisely because Trump doesn’t care much about education, because he picked someone without giving much thought to policy, you could get into trouble. Remember that feeling all you traditional conservatives had during the primaries? The horrible, stomach-turning realization that most of the GOP didn’t give a damn about all your dearest principles? The realization that GOP voters had shrugged and voted for your candidates because they didn’t have any other choice? Except now they did?

Bets, you need to remember that feeling and hold onto it for dear life. You live in that traditional conservative bubble, the one that sees black kids getting shot by white cops and blames bad (white female) teachers.  Technically, education reform focuses on improving education, but the reason they get funding is conservative belief that decimating union clout in traditionally blue states, thus disrupting a faithful, powerful Democrat lobby, will make the world a better place.

What, you think I’m cynical? In the metric ton of writing Rick Hess does every year the words “West Virginia” rarely, if ever, appear. (I thought I’d found an example but  it turned out to be a guest blogger.) Michael Petrilli is equally uncaring about the Mountain State, and mentions Detroit often, Michigan rarely or never. Go through the list of education reform organizations and see how often they worry about those isolated Wyoming schools, or whether or not the children of those Syrian refugees Hamdi  Ulukaya brings into Idaho because apparently no native workers want employment in his Chobani yogurt factories.

Reformers might be conservative, but they target blue states and blue voters. Take a look at the school district with the greatest charter penetration  as of 2015:


Hey, that map looks familiar. Oh, yeah, it looks like this county by county election map for 2016:

Except it’s a weird mismatch, isn’t it? Conservative reformers have had their greatest strengths in  Democrat strongholds. Even the ones found in Trump territory are in majority-blue areas.

Here’s what the reformers never tell you while asking for funds: Charter support requires unhappy parents. But most parents are quite pleased with their schools, and most parents understand, despite years of attempts to convince them otherwise, that native ability and peers matter more than teachers and curriculum. Changing innate ability levels is tough, so selling charters means finding parents who are unhappy with their childrens’ peer groups. Put another way, all parents want their kids away from Those Kids. Charters are attractive to parents who can’t use geography to achieve that aim.

Practically, this means selling charters primarily to two groups of parents: 1) highly motivated but poor black and Hispanic parents in schools overwhelmed with low ability, low motivated kids (the KIPP sell) 2) white suburban professional parents in schools that are either too brown or too competitive for their students, but who aren’t rich enough for private school or a house in a less diverse district (the Summit sell, or the progressive suburban charter). These are very blue groups.

Understanding the charter constituency explains the discrepancies between the charter and election map, and why the discrepancies go mostly in one direction–that is, why are there blue spots on the map that don’t have significant charter penetration?

In overwhelmingly white districts, parents aren’t buying. Vermont, an all-white state, doesn’t even have a charter law, last I checked, despite being so progressive that networks called the state the minute the polls closed. The California Bay Area doesn’t have the battalion of charters you see in Los Angeles–and many of the ones that do exist are in Oakland, the only place in the Bay Area with enough blacks to support urban charters. The Bay Area and other wealthy suburbs with lots of Hispanics do get some limited support for progressive charters like Summit, in part because Hispanics aren’t easily districted out in the suburbs without inviting lawsuits and in part because suburban comprehensive high schools can be very competitive and some parents would prefer a softer environment for their snowflakes.

In dominant red states,  charters aren’t selling. Not a lot of charters in rural Mississippi and Alabama, despite the pockets of black voters, because teachers unions are historically weak in the South. Nothing of interest to conservatives. (See? Told you it wasn’t about making education better.)

Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants tend to build ethnic cocoons which create Asian majorities in public schools. Increased Asian presence in schools drive out whites, who find their approach to education….unattractive, giving a whole new meaning to the term white flight.  Asian immigrants are much better than whites at crafting race-segregated environments, and they aren’t terribly tolerant of blacks or Hispanics. Hence, not much need for charters. We’ll see how this all plays out when we get to third or fourth generation Asian American in significant numbers. When they don’t have enough numbers to create an enclave, Asian charter selection most closely mirrors whites–they like progressive charters or better yet, competitive ones.

None of this should be news. Michael Petrilli has been desperately trying to convince the suburbs that charters matter to them because their schools suck. Such a compelling message.

So charters, the only real success of the reform effort, have seen  their efforts pay off with quasi-private schools for people who aren’t going to be voting Republican any time soon.   GOP voters, those faithless bastards who voted in Trump, aren’t terribly interested in reform. Education Next surveys the public on those values traditional conservatives hold dear. You can see all the 10-year trends at this link, but I thought I’d pick out GOP and general public trends on a few select–and somewhat damning–questions:

First up: support for charters, unions and merit pay. GOP responses first, general public second. You can click to see the enlarged version, but  you can clearly see that two of them have flatlined and one of them is increasing slightly.




The increasing trendline? Union support. Yes, Bets, GOP belief that teacher unions are a net positive for schools is on  the rise. Charters and merit pay? Decreasing slightly, but look at them over time. No movement. Needle’s stopped. Public opinion, same.

I grant you, of course, that GOP voters still like unions less than Democrat ones. But I think you can agree these trendlines are all resistant to happy talk.

Next up: support for vouchers, both low income and universal.

Whoa, serious tanking there. Isn’t that your primary issue, Betsy? I’m assuming Trump hasn’t seen these numbers, or he’d wonder why he’s hiring a fool who’s gotten nothing for her money all these years. How the hell can education reformers demand merit pay when they’ve failed so miserably at their own assignments?

Reformers haven’t changed public opinion about the overall suckiness of teachers and unions or the fabulosity of vouchers.  Yeah, you’ve got more charters but not dramatically more public support for them–and the people who want and get charters aren’t grateful GOP voters. At least charters provide dramatically better academic outcomes. Oh, wait.

Where was I?

Oh. Yeah. Look. You didn’t get Trump here. The epic wave that gave Trump the win didn’t start or end with education reform. You gotta dance with the people who did get him the job. Your policies aren’t popular. Try to remember that. Try to act like that. Try to care about actually making education better, not enacting reforms that have already failed and don’t have popular support.

That doesn’t mean ignoring black and Hispanic kids.

It means coming up with education “reforms” that speak to all schools, all students. I’ll have some suggestions. I promise they won’t involve spending more money.  You won’t have to write a single check!

And remember: education reform has not traditionally been a friendly place for women in charge. Voters and parents have found them wanting. And the bosses haven’t shown much sympathy. Just ask Michelle Rhee and Cami Anderson. You don’t want Trump to suddenly start caring about education for the wrong reasons, y’know?

Happy New Year.

About educationrealist

15 responses to “Letter to Betsy (#1): Dance with the Ones Who Brung Him

  • howardat58

    Nice one !
    She doesn’t want charters anyway.

  • Roger Sweeny

    I fell like I just watched a pitcher pace the mound, play with the resin bag, check the runner at first, shake off a few signs from the catcher, go into his stretch, and then stop and say, “I’ll have some pitches.”

    • educationrealist

      Really? Bummer. I thought the part in the middle about charters was wisdom that shows what’s coming. No? Too much throatclearing?

      • Roger Sweeny

        It may well be wisdom; it’s certainly not the magical thinking that suffuses so much talk about education policy.

        But without realizing it, I was reading it as if I were Betsy DeVos, and to imaginary Betsy, it ended suddenly and left her thinking, “Okay, smart guy. You’ve told me how I’m wrong. What would YOU do?”

  • Mark Roulo

    “The California Bay Area doesn’t have the battalion of charters you see in Los Angeles–and many of the ones that do exist are in Oakland, the only place in the Bay Area with enough blacks to support urban charters.”

    An interesting counter-example (and that is all that it is …) is Bullis Charter School in Los Altos. It seems to have been formed when a bunch of parents were unhappy about their local elementary school being closed by the district. I wonder if there are any lessons to be learned here, but nothing springs to mind. Ed? Any insight on this?

    • educationrealist

      I thought I wrote about Bullis, but can’t find it. Here’s a similar case. . I don’t know about the “closing of schools” but Bullis was very much about being unhappy that the district included Hispanics from the middle of town.

  • George

    I agree that the GOP base, and Trump’s support, for the most part is reasonably satisfied with its primary and secondary education situation. It’s higher education where there is the most dissatisfaction. That’s why I don’t understand why Trump picked someone like DeVos, whose interests only seem to lie in education areas where changes will likely make his supporters unhappy (or at best, they won’t care), rather then someone who would set their sights on higher education. I mean, I could see it if Trump himself cared about primary and secondary education issues, but it sure doesn’t seem like he does.

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    […] I did say in my last note that you hadn’t shown  much capacity for original thought, that your primary contribution […]

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    […] yet despite the appeal of private privilege for free, charters and vouchers have only two real constituencies, both of whom want what they see as better peers for their children and often don’t believe […]

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    […] pregnant political question have to do with teachers’ unions. The blogger Education Realist has pretty much proven to the smoking gun level that the charter movement is a stealth movement to b… using the academic needs of NAMs esp blacks as a social justicey front. At the same time, articles […]

  • Whatchyoo Talkin’ ‘Bout, Adolph? | Countenance Blog

    […] Adolph is also ambiguous about the political angle he’s working. Is he trying to mash up “segregation” with charters because he thinks charters are a bad idea consummately? Or is he trying to claim that the initial restriction on where charters can exist was wrong and that it should have been statewide all along? Since he leads the local NAACP, my bet is the former, that he’s not fond of charters at all, and for a good practical reason: Most NAACP chapters throughout the country, St. Louis’s included, are largely anchored by the local cabal of black cracker jack box theology degree preachers, and they mostly lead congregations that have black women employees of public school systems as a large and significant percentage in the flock. Teachers’ unions and unions of public school employees other than teachers have never been fond of charter schools and the charter movement, because they think that it’s all a pure full frontal assault against the unions and nothing more, and as Educational Realist has proven, they’re right in that assertion. […]

  • Praj

    (Sorry if this posts twice)

    I’m still working through your old posts. Where do you write about this: “It means coming up with education “reforms” that speak to all schools, all students. I’ll have some suggestions. I promise they won’t involve spending more money. You won’t have to write a single check!”

    Which posts have your specific ed reform suggestions?

    • educationrealist

      I’m sorry, I missed this, but I have a variety of posts. Have you read my “Encyclopedia of Ed”? The pages are on the bar. The Players and Teaching would be the two most likely to have policy.

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