first semester

Betsy DeVos’s first week at the U.S. Education Department: What you need to know

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Howard University.

After a bruising confirmation fight, Betsy DeVos has taken the helm at the U.S. Department of Education.

As she introduces herself to the education world, we’re here to help you keep up. Here’s what you should know about the protests, gaffes, and policy shifts that have marked her first few days on the job.

She’s having trouble getting into schools. A main critique of DeVos was that she’s never spent time in public schools before, and some of her sharpest critics have spent the week trying to make sure that stays the case. Protesters briefly blocked her from entering a Washington, D.C., school her first day on the job, and San Diego’s school board also rescinded an invitation for her to visit local schools amid pressure from the local teachers union.

She hit back in a speech on Wednesday. “The protesters’ behavior, I think, is a reflection on the way some seek to treat our education system today – by keeping kids in and new thinking out,” she said.

She’s still playing it safe on some issues. The education department had indicated that DeVos would talk about the achievement gap in that speech. She didn’t.

But she’s making moves on some big policy issues. Before becoming education secretary, DeVos had engaged with only a narrow set of policy issues, mostly around school choice. Now she has to tackle many more, and she has started to do so. Last week, she reached out to state education officials to let them know that she plans to stay the course on the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives more control over education policy to states. She also said she would look to cut “unnecessary” programs from the department, in a bit of traditional Republican rhetoric.

An editorial cartoon likened her to six-year-old Ruby Bridges entering an all-white school amid racist protests. The comparison was condemned as both offensive and inaccurate.

She embarrassed herself online. The likelihood of DeVos typing the education department’s tweets herself is almost zero. But the account’s misspelling of the name of black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois — followed by “our deepest apologizes” — didn’t do much for her image as someone out of touch with schools and the kids of color that she is supposed to serve.

She’s inspired some people to jump into public service themselves. “Since Betsy DeVos’ confirmation, we’ve had a flood of people come and say specifically, ‘I want to run for school board to protect the schools in my hometown,’” Amanda Litman, co-founder of the political action committee Run for Something, told NPR.

Meanwhile, one of her predecessors has joined the #resistance. Arne Duncan, who served as education secretary for seven years under President Obama, has made his concern about President Trump clear with a steady stream of retweets — and messages of his own.

Duncan also weighed in on the DeVos school protesters, tweeting, “Agree or disagree w @BetsyDeVos on any issue, but let’s all agree she really needs to be in public schools. Please let her in.”

Speaking of Twitter, she got a new account. She’s now @BetsyDeVosED.

She’s still attracting interest far beyond the usual education audience. One stunning thing about DeVos is that her nomination galvanized interest and opposition from a wide constituency — an unusual phenomenon for an education department nominee. That hasn’t changed now that she’s in office. A website for millennial women took a look at the fashion designer who has dressed DeVos, and a home tour posted on a design site included a detour into the homeowner’s questions about DeVos’s leadership.

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

We’ve reached out for reaction from DeVos’s team and will update when we hear back.

choice words

Critics of vouchers say they’re marred by racism and exacerbate segregation. Are they right?

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Debates over “school choice” — or “privatization” to critics — were already heated.

Then came a rhetorical hand grenade: a report by the Center For American Progress describing the “racist origins” of school vouchers and presented at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters. AFT president Randi Weingarten doubled down in a recent speech, arguing that voucher programs are the “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

Unsurprisingly, school choice backers have vehemently denied the charge.

“If vouchers are the polite cousins of segregation, then most urban school districts are segregation’s direct descendants,” responded Kevin Chavous of the American Federation for Children, the school voucher group that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used to lead.

DeVos, for her part, has argued that school choice is meant to help poor families and can lead to more integrated schools.

So what do we know about the competing claims?

It’s true that the idea of public subsidies for private school tuition grew in the 1950s and 60s as a means to avoid integration efforts — and it’s also true that there has long been pockets of support for the idea among progressives.

There is little evidence that existing voucher programs have caused increases in racial segregation. But there is also reason to fear a larger initiative, one that’s not limited to low-income families, might.

And the debate is no doubt complicated by the embrace of vouchers by the Trump administration, one that advocates say is impeding civil rights on many fronts beyond education.

Here are five things you should know.

1. Advocates for school vouchers have had diverse motives over time, including support for segregation,  as well as racial justice.

Private school vouchers were used to avoid court-ordered integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, as The Center for American Progress report lays out.

“By 1969, more than 200 private segregation academies were set up in states across the South,” the report states. “Seven of those states — Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana — maintained tuition grant programs that offered vouchers to students in an effort to incentivize white students to leave desegregated public school districts.”

This history is echoed by a study in the Peabody Journal of Education. “From their inception, vouchers were not race-neutral instruments,” a trio of researchers write. Those early voucher programs predated the support of Milton Friedman, the economist who wrote an influential 1955 essay endorsing the idea.

Friedman’s embrace of vouchers was based on the view that expanding competition would improve outcomes for students and make schools more integrated, building upon the philosophical work from a century earlier of John Stuart Mill. The idea also received support from more progressive corners, including Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist who supported using vouchers to try to “close the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged.”

In a 2005 article for the Georgetown Law Journal titled “The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First,” James Forman, Jr., now a Yale professor, acknowledges that vouchers were used to avoid integration but describes this history as “incomplete.”

He points to freedom schools established in 1964 in Mississippi by civil rights groups to educate black children who had been failed by the discriminatory public system as one example.

“By building separate schools and openly repudiating the establishment system, the freedom schools movement laid a foundation for later progressive school choice proposals,” Forman wrote.

Despite how vouchers were used in the 1950s and 1960s, the Peabody analysis points out that support for them grew among some progressives starting in the 1970s “as an antidote for overly bureaucratic big-city schools.”

The first voucher program in line with this vision was established in Milwaukee in 1990, with the support of a motley coalition of conservative Republicans and black Milwaukee Democrats. Among the latter group were Howard Fuller, who would later become Milwaukee’s school superintendent, and Polly Williams, a Democratic state senator.

The initiative was targeted at low-income families but would subsequently expand to include some middle-class students, a move that Fuller and Williams opposed. Williams would say that the program had been “hijacked.” The Milwaukee NAACP was against the city’s voucher initiative from its inception.

Private school choice programs have since grown throughout the country; many, though not all, target low- or moderate-income families, students attending public schools deemed low-performing, or students with disabilities. Leading pro-voucher groups support a dramatic expansion, including the creation of universal choice programs that all families can use.

By law, private schools that receive federal tax exemptions are now prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, though many of the original segregation academies still enroll few if any black students.

In sum, private school vouchers have been promoted by adherents with diverse motives, including some who viewed them as a way to avoid desegregation and others who saw school choice as a means to achieve racial justice.

Students at University Prep, a Denver elementary charter school, work on a computer-based assignment .
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

2. There is little evidence today that vouchers targeted at low-income families increase school segregation.

A key question now is whether voucher programs increase school segregation in practice. There is surprisingly little recent research on this topic, but the studies that do exist suggest that voucher programs for low-income students have no effect or they lead to small increases in school integration.

A recent study on Louisiana’s voucher program, which is largely used by low-income African-American students, found that black students tended to leave highly segregated public schools — but many also moved to a segregated private school. Still, more transfers had beneficial effects on integration than harmful ones.

“A third of all voucher transfers resulted in more integrated public and private schools, an additional 57 percent of transfers had mixed effects (positive effects in one sector, negative effects in another), and just 9 percent of transfers had negative effects,” as lead author Anna Egalite described the results.

A 2010 analysis of Milwaukee’s school voucher program found that it had a neutral effect on segregation. “Racially homogeneous schools make up a sizeable portion of schools in both [public and private] sectors,” the researchers wrote.

A number of older studies paint a positive picture of vouchers’ effect on integration, but this research cannot isolate cause and effect, as a report by EdChoice points out.

3. That doesn’t mean concerns about vouchers causing segregation are completely unfounded, though.

Large-scale voucher programs — which Betsy DeVos has promised and long advocated for — could have different results.

Research on charter schools in the U.S. and on vouchers in other countries offer more clues about how school choice programs sort students.

A report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, argues that vouchers threaten integration efforts, relying in part on evidence from Chile, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden. Widespread choice programs have been shown to exacerbate segregation in those countries across a number of dimensions. (There are many reasons, though, that education policy lessons from other countries might not translate cleanly to the U.S.)

Research on charter schools — a form of school choice that has expanded much more rapidly than vouchers — may be a helpful guide for the effects of a universal voucher program.

Studies on charter schools in Indianapolis, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas, among other places, show that charter schools can lead to greater racial stratification. There is very little evidence suggesting charters lead to more integrated schools, though a number of specific charter schools have emphasized diversity. National overviews have not found consistent evidence that charters cause segregation.

PHOTO: Dustin Chamber, courtesy of Fugee Academy.

4. The level of support for vouchers among black and Hispanic voters depends on how the question is worded.

Advocates for school choice often point to the support of black and Hispanic voters. An Education Next poll found that nearly 64 percent of African-Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics — compared to 50 percent of white respondents — would back a tax credit program to fund private school tuition.

But support for private school choice programs tends to drop substantially when the word “voucher” is introduced or the use of public dollars is emphasized.

According to another recent poll, just one-third of African-Americans said they would support “allowing students and parent to choose a private school to attend at public expense.” Ballot initiatives on school vouchers have also rarely been successful, though breakdowns of votes by race are not available.

5. The Trump administration’s stance on other issues makes vouchers seem more racist to some critics.

To some, the national messenger for vouchers is just as damning as the message.

Criticism of President Trump’s positions on civil rights — his ban on travel from several predominantly Muslims countries, his appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, and his voter integrity commission based on false claims of widespread voter fraud — are well documented.

“Racism is unfortunately and undeniably part of the context through which policy proposals emerging from this administration must be considered,” wrote Catherine Brown of the Center for American Progress.

But to supporters of vouchers, emphasizing the politics and not the policy amounts to opposing an idea that could help low-income kids.

“I absolutely worry about the Trump administration embrace of this issue because it’s created more of a political wedge,” Chavous of the American Federation for Children told Chalkbeat in May. “So are we going to wait four years to find something for these parents whose kids are struggling? Are we going to wait eight years? His embrace of the issue is a challenge politically, but we still have to do something for these kids who are underserved.”

Whether vouchers actually accomplish that goal remains its own hotly contested question.