When news hit the internet the day before Thanksgiving that Donald Trump had tapped Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos for his Secretary of Education, reaction came feverishly from all spectrums of the education community. If you were a champion of charter schools and vouchers, you were elated. Not so much so from those who never fell under their spell.
A member of the Alabama state school board contacted me. They were not happy. I told them that I did not see that much difference in Ms. DeVos and our new state superintendent Mike Sentence–except the size of their bank accounts. Both are big fans of charters and neither were trained as educators.
And after 24 hours of pondering this move by the President-to-be, I realize that I also have something in common with Ms. DeVos (that has nothing to do with money). Both of us are passionate about education, though for entirely different reasons. I honestly don’t know why she is other than apparently some super rich folks decide to take on the role of social engineer and tell the rest of us what is in our own best interest.
My passion comes from many, many visits to rural and inner-city schools where I’ve seen for myself the challenges teachers and principals face every day. And for some reason, it is hard for me to imagine that Betsy DeVos has spent much time in places such as Packer’s Bend, Fruithurst, Pine Hill, Huxford and Arley. I wonder how much of her fortune she spent putting showers in inner-city schools so that kids from homes without running water can get clean. Has she ever been to Hayneville or Ft. Deposit or Clayton preaching vouchers and charters to a roomful of mamas and daddies who don’t have the means to transport their children to an alternative school if one was even available?
So I am old and hard-headed and just a redneck, but for some reason I find it hard to grasp that someone accustomed to the rarefied air of Trump Tower or a Michigan estate has much in common with the world they wish to rule over.
For a closer look at Ms. DeVos, I recommend this article from the New York Times, portions of which I present below.
It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos, Donald J.Trump’s pick as the cabinet secretary overseeing the nation’s education system.
For nearly 30 years, as a philanthropist, activist and Republican fund-raiser, she has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and tried to strip teacher unions of their influence.
A daughter of privilege, she also married into it; her husband, Dick, who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Michigan a decade ago, is heir to the Amway fortune. Like many education philanthropists, she argues that children’s ZIP codes should not confine them to failing schools. (Can you say Alabama Accountability Act?)
As a candidate, Mr. Trump proposed steering $20 billion in existing federal money toward vouchers that families could use to help pay for private or parochial schools, perhaps tapping into $15 billion in so-called Title I money that goes to schools that serve the country’s poorest children. He called school choice “the civil rights issues of our time.”
Michigan is one of the nation’s biggest school choice laboratories, especially with charter schools. The Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts have among the nation’s 10 largest shares of students in charters, and the state sends $1 billion in education funding to charters annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation.
And a federal review in 2015 found “an unreasonably high” percentage of charter schools on the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The number of charter schools on that list had doubled since 2010, after the passage of a law a group financed by Ms. DeVos pushed to expand the schools. The group blocked a provision in that law that would have prevented failing schools from expanding or replicating.”