Remaking Public Schools
What Betsy DeVos stands for
Brian Hubble Illustration
While worries about the future of their health insurance topped the concerns of the hundreds of people who turned out for U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy’s Town Hall meeting in February, anxiety about the future of public education wasn’t far behind.
In fact, a sense of anxiety in general would best describe the crowd’s overall mood. The majority in attendance feared for the future of Social Security, continued coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, and attacks on public schools. More importantly, most were concerned that Cassidy, Congress in general and the President’s appointees don’t care about half of the country’s population.
The belief that elected officials, regardless of party affiliation, have the duty to serve the best interests of the country and all their constituents appears to be on the decline. With voters so divided, many Americans believe that political party loyalty is the only basis for casting votes.
Cassidy held the Town Hall, a public gathering to meet with constituents, at Jefferson Parish’s East Bank Regional Library on West Napoleon in Metairie. Like so many Town Hall meetings called by his Republican colleagues since President Trump’s election, these events have become lightning rods for citizens protesting the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, immigration policy, and the appointment of Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education.
Cassidy’s sneak-in and sneak-out arrival to a space that was way too small to fit all the people who wanted to attend gave citizens left out in a hot parking lot reason to wonder if he cared about them. At one point, many began to chant “Where is Bill?” and “Shame, Shame.”
Desiree Aucoin, a Metairie resident, spoke to the leftover crowd about her daughter, Arabella, who suffers from a rare, life-threatening illness that can cause brain dysfunction. She said she is concerned that DeVos will dismantle the Department of Education, which provides funding for students with special needs. “I want to know what his plan is for children with disabilities,” she said.
President Trump criticized public schools during his campaign and pledged to spend billions of dollars to expand non-traditional schools, such as independent charters. His appointment of DeVos as education secretary underscores a disregard for public schools and signals the possibility of drastic policy shifts. As an example, in Michigan, DeVos successfully spearheaded an expansion of charter schools and a failed attempt to get voter approval for a voucher program.
DeVos’ support of independent charter schools isn’t especially alarming - the former education secretary supported them, too - except for the fact that she doesn’t appear to support regulating them. The success of non-profit charters in New Orleans is partially the result of the state’s strict accountability measures. If they don’t perform, they are closed. In states with weak regulation and a preponderance of for-profit operators, charter schools haven’t performed as well.
The greatest danger for public education under DeVos’ leadership is a possible distribution of billions in federal money through block grants, which encourage states to expand unregulated charters and voucher programs that allow children to attend private schools at taxpayer expense.
Many small-scale voucher programs are underway now in several states, including Louisiana, but recent studies of these programs undercut the perception that they do a better job of educating than public schools.
Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance released a report in February that says the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), instigated by Governor Jindal in 2008, and expanded in 2012, has negatively affected the performance of its participants, especially in math.
The report states, “In general, our results indicate that the use of an LSP scholarship to enroll in private schools is associated with statistically significant - and substantively large - negative effects on student math achievement in the first two years of the program’s statewide expansion.”
The researchers go on to add, “The magnitude of these negative estimates is unprecedented.”
The LSP has been a boon to some struggling private schools, especially parochial schools, which had been suffering from decreasing enrollment for many years. Jindal, a converted Catholic, signed the bill authorizing the vouchers at a Baton Rouge Catholic school with the New Orleans Archbishop standing behind him. His choice of location indicates that financially supporting Catholic schools with public dollars was his intended goal.
DeVos could have a similar goal. A Mother Jones article about DeVos’ political activism and philanthropy reports that she and her husband have spent millions of dollars supporting religious and Republican causes.
According to the article, in 2001 DeVos told the Gathering, a Christian group that encourages spreading the faith, “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”
The article also quotes a 2013 interview with a philanthropy magazine in which DeVos says charter schools are a “valid choice,” but they take a while to start up. “Meanwhile,” she continued, “there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.”
If these non-public schools are so “good” why are they “hanging on by a shoestring?” DeVos isn’t likely to ask that question before providing billions in tax dollars to save them.