Tag Archives: Betsy DeVos

Letter to Betsy (#2): Drop Out.

Hey, Bets.

Well, I did say in my last note that you hadn’t shown  much capacity for original thought, that your primary contribution to ed reform were your contributions. I didn’t expect you to prove it so completely in your first at-bat.

Let’s avert our eyes from the tonedeaf response on guns at schools. I’m agnostic on the issue, but you should know that grizzlies aren’t a reason this is a tier-1 conflict. That bespeaks an ignorance I find…unsettling. I accept that you don’t care much about preschool, but what sort of conservative Republican would you be if  you thought universal pre-K was effective? Accountability, on the other hand, is a word you’ve heard before, so your constant evasions were seen–correctly–as attempts to avoid answering that you don’t think charters should be accountable to the same degree that public schools are. (No. Charters aren’t public schools.)

All of these could be explained away, or at least considered tertiary issues. You could say you hadn’t been properly briefed. And in fairness, you did have a nice moment with Bernie Sanders on college tuition: “free college” is indeed a misnomer.

But on two points, you displayed ignorance so profound that Republicans should vote against you.

First, you had no idea that IDEA and other federal legislation requires that states pay for absurd and often useless interventions for a wide range of disabilities, including many mild learning disabilities for which no meaningful interventions exist.

Less than a week before you went to Congress, the Supreme Court heard arguments as to whether or not a school district should provide an autistic kid with private school if the educational benefit the school could provide was “only trivial”.

Left unmentioned was the fact that on any given day, mainstream kids aren’t given this right.   I don’t often get infuriated at education reporters, many of whom do a pretty good job, but  not a single one has pointed out the absurd unfairness of a law that gives a select group of kids the right to sue for the private education of their choice on the grounds that they aren’t benefiting from the education their school provides.

I know many people will snicker–yeah, if all kids could sue their schools, teachers would hate it! Unlikely. I’d expect a lot of kids suing over disruptive classrooms, which would give schools cover to expel troublemakers. I’d expect others to demand the right to be taught what they don’t yet know.  Right now, my Algebra 2 junior who counts on her fingers can’t demand to be taught at a school that will instruct her in ratios and basic math, just as a sophomore with fifth grade reading skills can’t sue his district demanding the right to attend a school that won’t insist on pretending he can understand Antigone or Romeo & Juliet. Of course, no such school exists because they aren’t allowed to. Few teachers  would oppose safer schools or appropriate curriculum.

Once people figure out that giving all kids the right to sue wouldn’t work out as expected, they’ll look at removing the privilege from that select group. I wrote an entire article promoting the repeal of IDEA. I’m very much in favor of special ed being returned to the states and giving voters a say in what priorities special education receives compared to the wide range of needs that schools and their students have.

Betsy, I would have loved to see you  boldly call for an end to federal intervention in special education, to leave these decisions to the states. But you didn’t even know that the responsibility had to be returned! Of course, if you had known what the law was, you’d have burped  up (ladylike, I’m sure) a bromide, followed by a platitude and everyone would have patted themselves on the back for caring about disabled kids.

That leads to the second of your gross errors, about which I have less passion but is far more revealing.  Growth versus proficiency is something that teachers themselves have been talking about for decades, but education reformers have only really stumbled onto in the past few years, as the need arose when  charters didn’t attain the proficiency numbers they expected.  But you should know that. This is right in the ballpark of the field you fund so generously. And you were clueless. Franken was right to interrupt and dismiss your answer. (He was wrong to meander off into gay rights, a matter of trivial interest in public education. Put that in the “Why Trump Won” category.)

If  fifteen or more years actively supporting charters hasn’t brought you up to speed on the fundamental issues determining their success,  then how can we assume you have the capacity to learn about anything less central to your interests?

Bernie Sanders asked the right question. And you proved the correct answer was “No.”  A better woman would have said “I was almost certainly selected because I’m a billionaire who has given money to causes. But I also have a real interest in making life better for poor children.  That’s why I’m here.” That, at least, would be honest.

Better you should go back to writing checks.

Unlike most of the people opposing you, I accept that the incoming SecEd will be someone I disagree with, someone who openly snorts derisively at my profession, while protesting he does no such thing. I’m fine with that. I’d just like someone…smarter. Someone who really does know the research. Someone who, ideally, has been around the block with education reform. Someone who knows it’s more than the platitudes that typical conservatives spill, that “fixing schools” as they envision it hasn’t yet worked out.

My pick, and I’ve thought about this for a while, is Checker Finn. He’s old enough not to worry about his next job (which is why I eliminated Michael Petrilli and Rick Hess from consideration). He’s cranky and willing to offend. He’s wrong, of course, but then all education reformers are.  But when he’s not shilling the reform spiel, he’s knowledgeable on many different aspects of education. And he’s canny. Apart from yours truly, he’s the only person to observe that Trump voters aren’t exactly the target audience for talk of vouchers and charters. He has also recently observed that the era of education reform is over, and wondered whether Trump should even bother with a SecEd, given the restrictions that ESSA has put on the feds. (yay!). This suggests an appropriate level of humility for a long-term reformer, one who understands that 25 years of getting what he wanted in reform hasn’t fixed the achievement gap, that  reformers’ grand scheme of killing ed schools with the 1998 Higher Education Act failed miserably.  Checker Finn understands full well that Common Core was rejected; he argued in favor of them because he hoped they would result in less federal oversight.

Checker was Never Trump and, as mentioned, pro-Common Core, which is two strikes against him in Trumpland. But Betsy, if you decide to take my advice, I hope you put a word in for Checker with your not-to-be boss.

But since you’ll probably ignore me, see you next letter.

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.