Betsy DeVos targets de Blasio’s education policies at black-tie dinner, saying they ‘renewed nothing’

The phrase drew knowing groans from attendees at the Manhattan Institute gala: “Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Renewal initiative.”

“One of the mayor’s signature policies renewed nothing, but it did confirm that more than $750 million in centralized spending doesn’t buy better results,” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told attendees at the black-tie event in Manhattan on Wednesday night.

DeVos’s criticism of New York City’s school turnaround program, which added resources like counselors and added hours to the school day at struggling schools, hit on a familiar theme for the secretary. It comes as the city is formally ending the program — though maintaining some of its core aspects — which has produced uneven results.

She also praised New York City’s charter schools, which have run into a cap on their growth.

Criticism from DeVos, who is highly unpopular among Democrats, will likely be welcomed by de Blasio, who is mulling a run for president.

“Once again, Betsy DeVos hasn’t done her homework,” said Freddi Goldstein, a spokesperson for the mayor. “[She] apparently didn’t read the Manhattan Institute’s own report showing the positive impact of the Renewal program,” she added, referring to a paper that suggested that the city’s approach had in fact led to substantial achievement gains.

DeVos was in New York City to receive an award from the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Before she spoke, former President George W. Bush appeared by video to offer praise. Outside, a group of protesters held signs that said “Expel DeVos.”

Preaching to the choir of the think tank’s benefactors and supporters, DeVos stuck closely to her usual script: pouring more money into schools doesn’t work, but expanding school choice and “freedom” does.

“The education cabal says that all of our kids must learn as assigned: in the same way, in the same place, at the same time, as if they are all the same. Well, that is wrong,” she said. “A recent study from professors at Stanford and Harvard confirms that 50 years of spending more money on ‘the system’ — including over a trillion dollars from federal taxpayers — has not improved student achievement, especially for the most vulnerable among us.”

Betsy DeVos speaks at the Manhattan Institute awards event.

In fact, the study in question did not directly examine school spending. The analysis showed that test scores in the U.S. over the last several decades have risen substantially in earlier grades, but less so in later ones, and score gaps between low- and high-income students have largely held steady.

Other recent studies have shown that more money for schools benefits students in a number of ways. DeVos also did not mention research, including a recent study in Louisiana, showing that private school voucher programs hurt students’ math test scores.

But she was on firmer empirical ground criticizing de Blasio’s Renewal program and praising New York City’s charter schools, which tend to outperform district schools on state exams. A recent study found that the Renewal turnaround approach didn’t lead to clear improvements in test scores or high school graduation rates, but did seem to boost attendance.

Ironically, the Manhattan Institute analysis has offered the most optimistic view of the Renewal program. DeVos didn’t bring up this study.