Betsy DeVos

From ‘passionate’ hands-on advocate’ to ‘everything Donald Trump said is wrong in America’: The education world reacts to Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Michigan Republican Betsy DeVos in President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. secretary of education.

What does the education world think about Betsy DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist and voucher advocate whom Donald Trump picked as his education secretary nominee?

Some groups, mostly ones that have included vouchers in their vision for school choice, are lavishing praise on DeVos in statements that began pouring in shortly after Trump’s day-before-Thanksgiving announcement. Others are tempering their congratulations with questions.

And many are expressing deep concern — about the racist rhetoric that fueled Trump’s campaign and has characterized some reaction to his election, the impact of Trump’s education agenda on students of color and immigrant students, and the future of public education as an institution.

Here are excerpts from the reaction that has come in so far. We’ll keep updating this list — so please send perspectives we’ve missed to [email protected]

Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank: “Betsy is a passionate, hands-on advocate for school reform. She is a true champion for the competition of ideas. She pursues innovative solutions in education by engaging all players, from policymakers to reformers to parents and community leaders. Her strong conviction that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue comes at a pivotal time, when Washington is in urgent need of productive cooperation.”

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose Foundation for Excellence in Education counts DeVos as a board member: “I cannot think of a more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms.”

Peter Cunningham, the editor of Education Post who formerly worked in the Obama administration: “Betsy DeVos is a well-known proponent of school choice, but her home state of Michigan, where she has played an active role in expanding choice, has a mixed record on charter school authorizing and accountability. … We are hopeful that, under her leadership, the U.S. Department of Education will continue to protect children of every race, income level, background, and ability by speaking out against discrimination, intolerance and bullying, by encouraging high standards, and by demanding absolute transparency around results and robust systems of accountability.”

Co-founders of the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence, Sydney Morris and Evan Stone: “As Ms. DeVos has never been a teacher, school leader, or school system administrator, we call on her to listen to and include the ideas and voices of educators in the critical decisions she will make that will help shape the future of education in the United States. … We hope that, if confirmed as Education Secretary, Ms. DeVos will leverage this important position to uplift — not dismantle — our public schools.”

Teach for America: “Teach For America lives by our values and always stands in solidarity with the most vulnerable students. … The Teach For America community includes more than 50,000 people from all backgrounds and political ideologies. We value diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, and we refuse to accept racism, bigotry, or discrimination in any form. We call on the secretary designee and president-elect to uphold these values in pursuit of an excellent and equitable public education for all.”

Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, which urged Democrats not to work in Trump’s education department: “DFER remains deeply concerned by the President-elect’s education agenda, which by proposing to cut money from Title I and to eliminate the federal role on accountability, undermines progress made under the Obama administration to ensure all children have access to good schools. We applaud Mrs. Devos’s commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools, but hope, at the same time, she will be a voice that opposes policies that would hurt kids, both on the education front and concerning inter-related issues including proposals to kick 20 million families off of healthcare, deport millions of Dreamers, and accelerate stop-and-frisk practices that would lead to the imprisonment of larger numbers of low-income parents on low-level, non-violent offenses.”

The National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country: “Her efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers — which take away funding and local control from our public schools — to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense. These schemes do nothing to help our most-vulnerable students while they ignore or exacerbate glaring opportunity gaps. She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education. By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities.”

The Education Trust, a group that promotes high achievement for students of color and poor students: “As U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has the opportunity to continue our nation’s upward trajectory by working to ensure that students are given the opportunities they need to succeed academically, and that schools and institutions are responsible for the success of all students. But there is a very real risk of undoing this hard-won progress if resources are diverted from the young people who most need them, or if the federal government fails to uphold its responsibility to protecting the needs and interests of all students — especially the most vulnerable.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican: Michiganders know the passion Betsy has for reforming education in a way that puts kids first. Betsy’s appointment will mean great things for Michigan and for children around the nation as she takes her no-nonsense commitment to empowering parents to the highest levels in Washington.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation Teachers: “Betsy DeVos is everything Donald Trump said is wrong in America — an ultra-wealthy heiress who uses her money to game the system and push a special-interest agenda that is opposed by the majority of voters. Installing her in the Department of Education is the opposite of Trump’s promise to drain the swamp.”

Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students: “We are deeply concerned by the nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education. GLSEN is committed to the principle that all students have a right to high-quality public education free from discrimination. DeVos’s record of advocacy for vouchers and tuition tax credits represents a rejection of that principle.”

Correction (Nov. 28, 2016): This piece has been updated to correct the name of Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute.

Betsy DeVos

Six things to know about Indiana’s school voucher program, a possible model for ed sec nominee Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students eat lunch at the Oaks Academy Middle School, a private Christian school in Indiana that is integrated by design and accepts taxpayer funded vouchers.

Philanthropist Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, did not succeed in getting a school voucher program off the ground in her home state of Michigan.

But her advocacy helped influence the program in neighboring Indiana, which is expansive, entrenched — and could be a model if Trump and DeVos move forward with trying to push a national voucher program.

Here are six important things to know about vouchers in Indiana:

1. Indiana’s program is the biggest in the country — costing local districts students and funding.

It allows thousands of families to have thousands of dollars to send their kids to private schools that they would otherwise have to pay for, or win scholarships to attend. The number of students using vouchers rose from 3,911 in 2011, when the program launched, to 32,686 in 2016.

That total makes Indiana’s voucher program the largest of any state, with nearly 3 percent of kids using public funds to pay private school tuition.

If a public school student applies for and receives a voucher to attend a private school, they take their state funding with them, so districts and schools where those students might otherwise have enrolled shoulder the cost. Voucher advocates argue that schools can handle the loss because they have fewer students to educate. But critics say that isn’t the reality of how school budgets work: If a class loses two of 20 students, its teacher doesn’t see her salary reduced by 10 percent.

Funding issues have fueled criticism of the program. In 2013, the Indiana State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit to stop it, arguing in part that the program caused public dollars to be spent improperly on religious institutions. The Indiana Supreme Court dismissed the suit, but the union has continued to make the argument. And even Jennifer McCormick, the small-district superintendent who, with DeVos support, unseated Democratic State Superintendent Glenda Ritz, has expressed concerns about programs that divert money from public schools.

2. Indiana’s program looks a lot like what DeVos says she wants.

Trump’s proposal is for low-income families to be eligible for vouchers, but his vice president, former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has supported vouchers for middle-income families, too. DeVos is more in Pence’s camp, and her political action committee, the American Federation for Children, has poured $1.3 million into local voucher advocacy efforts.

Indiana’s eligibility is unusually wide open. Students who get vouchers don’t only come from families near the poverty line (as in North Carolina), have special needs (as is a requirement in several states, including Florida), or be zoned for low-performing schools or districts (as in Cleveland).

The only restriction is family income, but even there Indiana’s rules are generous. A family of four making less than $44,863 per year can receive a voucher of up to 90 percent of the funding that their local public district would receive from the state. Since 2013, families earning up to $89,725 per year have also been eligible — but they get only half the state aid their district would receive.

3. It is increasingly serving students from middle-class families.

A growing portion of Indiana voucher users are from middle-class families, and growth has been greatest among suburban families.

In 2016, 22 percent of voucher students were from the suburbs, compared to 16 percent in 2011. The portion of voucher users living in rural areas also rose slightly during that time — even though vouchers are often impractical in areas where there are not enough students to sustain multiple schools.

As the proportion of urban families using vouchers fell, so did the proportion of students of color. During the first year, black students — who are 12 percent of the state’s students — made up about a quarter of voucher students in the state. That number is down to 13 percent now. Hispanic student enrollment is down as well, to 18 percent, even as Hispanic student enrollment has shot up across the state in the last five years.

In total, 60 percent of Indiana voucher users are white, and about 31 percent are from middle-income families — not exactly the student population that struggles most in the state’s schools.

4. It has steered students away from public schools — but also probably helped families make the choices they were going to make anyway.

A rationale for vouchers — and one DeVos has offered — is that they let families escape low-performing public schools that aren’t helping their kids. But over time, the proportion of Indiana voucher users moving from public schools has fallen sharply. In 2011, just 9 percent of voucher users had never before gone to public school. That was true for more than half of students using vouchers in 2016.

Another question is whether vouchers allow families to choose private schools they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. The evidence in Indiana is mixed: Since the program launched, private school enrollment has grown — but less rapidly than voucher use, suggesting that some new students attend private school because of vouchers, but other voucher recipients would attend private school regardless.

And as is often the case when vouchers are introduced, religious schools have benefitted heavily. Vouchers have allowed some Catholic schools to stave off closure, and parents who use vouchers say the opportunity for their children to get religious instruction at school was the most important reason they chose their schools. Most of the non-religious schools that accept vouchers cost far more than the cost of the voucher, making them unaffordable for low-income families.

Critics of vouchers say the data points add up to a problematic picture. “How many of the kids that are actually receiving vouchers were ever going to go to a public school anyway?” Teresa Meredith, head of the state teachers association, said in June. “I think it shows that it’s really not helping the kids that it was promised to help.”

5. The program has more regulations than DeVos might like.

A hallmark of Devos’s philosophy appears to be opposition to regulation of schools — she recently worked to oppose added oversight for charter schools in Detroit. Ordinarily, private schools in Indiana face very few state restrictions, but schools that accept vouchers must act in some ways like their public school counterparts.

First, they have to get approval from the state to accept vouchers. Once approved, they must be accredited, give the state’s annual test, known as ISTEP; evaluate teachers in part based on student test scores; and receive A-F accountability grades. They’re also vulnerable to consequences if their students consistently post low test scores — including losing their ability to accept vouchers from new students.

The regulations didn’t bother Republican lawmakers because many Indiana private schools already had accreditation and met some of the other requirements to be able to compete in the state’s high school athletics association, according to Republican Rep. Bob Behning.

Voucher schools aren’t allowed to censor materials related to American history and must maintain libraries that include the U.S. Constitution and other documents. (Indiana’s standards do not require teaching contraception, an issue for some private schools in other states with vouchers.)

6. Vouchers haven’t helped students learn more.

One argument that voucher proponents make is that families can choose the schools that are going to serve their children best. But across the country, a growing body of research suggests that vouchers have limited or no effect on student learning. Locally, a new new long-term study out of Indianapolis, done by researchers at Notre Dame University, found that students who switched from traditional public schools to Catholic schools actually did worse in math.

One possible explanation: Vouchers cause students to change schools when they otherwise would not. “All research that we know of is pretty convergent on the conclusion that mobility for students is bad,” said Ashlyn Nelson, an education researcher and professor at Indiana University.

Choice and consequences

Could school vouchers come to Colorado under a Trump administration? It’s a long shot.

Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate headlined the 2016 Western Conservative Summit at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Donald Trump’s selection of conservative Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos to lead the federal education department has spurred plenty of speculation about whether the new administration can make good on a campaign promise to fund a nationwide school voucher program.

DeVos is an adamant supporter of vouchers and has spent her personal wealth to champion advocates of school choice including some in Colorado, such as U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Yuma.

Gardner, who supports vouchers, received $5,200 from DeVos during his 2014 Senate run.

Trump’s plan, outlined in one of his few education policy speeches, pledged $20 billion of existing federal dollars to be sent to the states as grants for low-income students to use at private schools.

Details have yet to surface, and likely won’t for several more months. And while it would be a significant uphill battle for that plan to become federal law and an even greater feat for vouchers to become a reality in Colorado, it isn’t totally outside the realm of possibility.

Here’s how a Trump administration bring vouchers to Colorado, a state that has wrestled with the thorny subject for nearly two decades.

First, Congress would have to act.

That’s a big first step, especially since lawmakers in Washington just passed bipartisan legislation that rewrote the nation’s education laws.

“Lawmakers used a lot of time and effort in Congress to write the Every Student Succeeds Act,” said Michelle Exstrom, a program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

She added that many Republican lawmakers walked away happy and are likely to turn their attention to other issues, such as health care reform.

Even if there was interest in passing new legislation that would authorize a federal voucher program, the money would need to come from somewhere. As Education Week pointed out, lawmakers probably won’t be in keen on repurposing any current federal funds spent on education.

But let’s pretend everything goes as planned in Washington. Then what?

For a federal voucher plan to fly in Colorado, it would have to meet at least two basic legal requirements: First, the program would have to be voluntary for local school districts. Second, no state funds could be used to fund vouchers to religious schools (at least for now).

James Lyons, representing the Douglas County School District, speaks during oral arguments at the Colorado Supreme Court in the Douglas County vouchers case.
PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
James Lyons, representing the Douglas County School District, speaks during oral arguments at the Colorado Supreme Court in the Douglas County vouchers case.

Both requirements stem from previous state Supreme Court decisions on vouchers.

The first decision was handed down in 2004 after Republican Gov. Bill Owens and a Republican legislature tried to create what would have been the largest statewide voucher system at the time. The plan would have allowed students in 11 low-performing school districts to use 85 percent of the state’s per pupil funding amount to go to a private school.

The Colorado Supreme Court, however, ruled that the state could not mandate how school districts use the local tax revenue that funds their schools. That, the court said, would violate the state’s constitutionally protected local control of schools. (The state’s per pupil funding amount is made of taxes collected by the state and local counties.)

The second decision comes from a more recent Supreme Court decision about the Douglas County School District’s voucher plan. The Supreme Court ruled the program was unconstitutional. While four justices said the program was unconstitutional, only three said it was violated a part of the constitution that forbids state funds to be used at private religious schools.

Eric Hall, who represented the Douglas County School District, argues that creates some ambiguity about whether Colorado could use state funds to match federal dollars.

“There isn’t a precedential ruling on whether (the constitution) prohibits tax dollars being spent at private religious schools,” he said. “That will have to be ironed out at some point.”

But Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said he believes the constitution is clear on the matter.

“I would imagine the state constitution would remain a bar for the state participating in a plan that sends state money to private religious schools,” he said.

The Douglas County School District has appealed the state Supreme Court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So let’s say Trump’s plan doesn’t require states to kick in money and that school districts could volunteer for the program. What still has to happen to get vouchers in Colorado?

The state education department likely would be responsible for running the program. But before the department would participate, it would seek input from the State Board of Education, the legislature and the governor, said Patrick Chapman, executive director of federal programs for the department.

Douglas County parents protest the district's voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)
Douglas County parents protest the district’s voucher program in 2010 (Denver Post photo)

“We would not move forward with anything that would be illegal or go against their wishes,” Chapman said.

While the governor has never taken a position on vouchers, a split legislature in which Democrats control the House and a state board soon to be controlled by Democrats by one vote does not bode well for voucher supporters.

Rebecca McClellan, a Democrat from Centennial whose recent victory will flip the balance of partisan control on the state board, campaigned on protecting “neighborhood schools” and opposing vouchers.

“I do not favor voucher schemes that drain funding from our public schools and make an already challenging financial picture that much harder,” McClellan said at a candidate forum in Aurora.

Douglas County makes up a small portion of the district McClellan will represent.