In his remarks during Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) seemed mystified by the criticism the Trump Secretary of Education nominee had received since her nomination. He was particularly baffled by opposition to DeVos’s position on charter schools: publicly funded, privately managed institutions that operate with minimal oversight. Emphasizing the broad, bipartisan support for charter schools, Alexander recited a politically diverse list of their proponents, including Secretary Hillary Clinton, the past three presidents, and both Secretaries of Education under President Barack Obama. He also noted that 6,800 charter schools operate in 43 states and the District of Columbia. How baffling, Alexander suggested, that anyone would criticize DeVos for being a vocal proponent of such a popular idea. “Who,” Alexander asked, “is the mainstream here?”
Despite a healthy amount of liberal outrage on social media about some of her more contentious remarks, DeVos’s confirmation hearing was, largely, a celebration of mainstream ideas about education. DeVos proposed changes, like empowering parents to have a voice in the type of schools their children attend, that straddle our vast political divide. She apparently proposed policies that stand to benefit American schools so obviously and so dramatically that to oppose them would be to oppose the very wellbeing of our nation’s children.
DeVos’s position emerges from a familiar ideological framework, one whose political lineage is becoming more and more difficult to disentangle. Reagan-era arguments about the U.S. falling behind other countries economically because of our failing public schools led to arguments for charter schools; those arguments for charter schools demanded more flexibility, accountability, and room for innovation in schools, which is reflected in the discourse of No Child Left Behind and, later, President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.
While Democrats have touted charters and vouchers in recent years, “school choice” is a politically laden term that is rhetorically linked to the idea that public education is inherently inefficient, flawed, and unsuitable for many of our nation’s children. In DeVos’s home state of Michigan, nearly 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit education management organizations – a fact that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) mentioned during DeVos’s confirmation hearing. But like many of his Democratic colleagues, Whitehouse’s criticism of charter schools was rhetorically tepid (“We demand a lot from our charter schools [in Rhode Island]. We’re proud of them”).
While children affected by poverty struggle in our public schools and the achievement gap is a persistent reality, research indicates that our public schools are not failing. Jack Schneider of The Atlantic notes that American students’ standardized test scores are “roughly on par with countries like Norway, which was named by the United Nations the best place in the world to live; and students from low-poverty states like Massachusetts outscore most of their global peers.”
But the narrative of public education’s decline has been so widely accepted by the American public that DeVos and the Trump administration might face a very easy path to upending our public education system. If Trump’s position is that we simply must make American public schools great again, he is unlikely to encounter fierce opposition. That’s what’s so dangerous about DeVos’s agenda. Because it has been so widely and unquestioningly accepted, efforts to support more funding for public education instead of diverting funds to charter schools will soon be cast as dogmatic, obstructionist adherence to the broken status quo, somehow stodgy and radical at once. Like Trump’s proposed infrastructure plan, his administration’s education reform efforts threaten to slip under the radar of liberal outrage because of their apparent investment in a very uncontroversial idea: improving our nation’s schools.
The Bipartisan Consensus on Charter Schools
During her confirmation hearing, DeVos made a distinction between what “the system” thinks students need versus what parents want for their children. “Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children?” she said. “Too many parents are denied access to the full range of options.” Among those options, charter schools that are able to “innovate”—that is, to develop new methods for enhancing test scores and other measures of student achievement—are lauded as the potential solution for the purportedly failing public school system. “If confirmed, I will be an advocate for great public schools,” she said during her confirmation hearing. “But if a school is unsafe or unfit, we should support a parent’s right to enroll their student in a high-quality alternative.”
This sentiment is shared by Democrats like President Obama. In May 2014, President Obama inaugurated National Charter Schools Week, which he established in order to “pay tribute to the role our Nation’s public charter schools play in advancing opportunity.” In the Presidential Proclamation accompanying his announcement, he wrote:
As independent public schools, charter schools have the ability to try innovative approaches to teaching and learning in the classroom. This flexibility comes with high standards and accountability; charter schools must demonstrate that all their students are progressing toward academic excellence. Those that do not measure up can be shut down. And those that are successful can provide effective approaches for the broader public education system.
Obama invoked the key values of the market-based educational reform movement of the last thirty years, a tradition DeVos represents: innovation, standards, accountability, measurability, and effectiveness.
With bipartisan actors praising charter schools, a majority of the public has come to accept the ideology embodied by DeVos’s brand of education reform. Public approval for this reform ideology is consistently high. Though a 2013 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes indicates that charter schools yield mixed results and do not outperform public schools in most states, a September 2014 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll found that 70 percent of Americans support the idea of charter schools and believe that they offer a “better education” than public schools. These results reflect a widespread lack of confidence in American public education and acceptance of the argument that public education is an inefficient and failing system. Tellingly, the Phi Delta Kappa researchers reported that their survey respondents were more likely to express support for charter schools when they were “described as schools that can operate independently and free of regulations.” Primed to distrust bureaucratic restrictions, many Americans have been enticed by the school reform argument.
Re-Partisanize the DeVos Agenda
DeVos’s hearing wasn’t without fireworks. Several Democrats pressured DeVos in heated exchanges that highlighted the partisan differences in opinion about education reform. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) wondered aloud if DeVos would have been considered for a cabinet position had her family not donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) pointed out that DeVos has no personal experience with college debt, presumably meaning DeVos is ill-equipped to contend with the looming student debt crisis. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) grilled her on the difference between proficiency and growth in educational measurement and assessment. But charter schools, which are seen by many education activists to divert precious resources from our nation’s public schools, received little criticism. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) raised questions about potential conflicts of interest regarding for-profit charter schools in Michigan, and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Col.) asked DeVos why so many of Michigan’s charter schools are failing, but seemed satisfied with her answer that new accountability standards had been put into place.
We have heard that we should resist the “normalization” of Trump’s presidency and the concomitant cultural shifts that his election threatens. When it comes to education, we have a different challenge: to “re-partisanize” DeVos’s agenda. Many of her ideas are mainstream, but they shouldn’t be; they are radical, dangerous, and threaten to more deeply entrench inequality. Many movement leaders, activists, and critics have pledged to challenge DeVos’s agenda at every turn, like the American Federation of Teachers, vocal proponents of public education like University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski, AFT President Randi Weingarten, and, of course, Citizen Critics. But that message needs to be spread far and wide.
DeVos concluded the opening remarks of her confirmation hearing with a heartfelt proclamation: “For me, it’s simple,” she said. “I trust parents, and I believe in our children.” We all believe in our children. We might even agree that we trust parents. But it isn’t simple, and we can’t let the conversation end there just because it sounds good.