Education Secretary Betsy DeVos confirmed twice last week what we already know about her. The first was that she fits right in with the climate of confusion and lack of direction that permeates this current White House. Next, she reaffirmed the all too real truth that she has no knowledge pertaining to her job.
Ms. DeVos is a champion of what she calls “school choice” for students in the United States. She really isn’t in favor of choice, what she is in favor of, like her boss and her peers in the cabinet, is tax cuts for rich people.
Early last month, Ms. DeVos must have read or heard about the Denver, Colorado Public Schools. The Brookings Institute heralded the Denver schools as the best system in the country for school choice. Denver Public Schools (DPS) has had school choice across the district for several years. Students can attend any public school, community or charter, they want. Charters have a lottery for attendance if there are more students choosing than slots, and community students in the attendance area get first choice at their neighborhood school with all open slots available to any other learner. DPS has even gone the extra mile and is developing transportation options to get kids from all over the district to all the other schools. This has been a huge obstacle for many families when picking a school well suited for their kids that is outside walking or biking distance from home. Not only is this a snag for busy parents going off to work, it is a deal breaker for poor families that cannot afford a daily bus pass. Those families, in reality, do not have equal access to choice options. DPS realizes this fact, and is working on a solution.
This attitude about learning, problem solving, and budget support is what got, among others, the Brookings Institute’s attention, prompting them to award Denver the top school choice award.
Ms. DeVos must have stopped at reading the headline to the story, because she took that incomplete information (just the stuff in large print and easy to read) and lauded DPS in a speech for their fine work in providing their students with school choice.
I wish my story could end here, but of course it doesn’t. Someone must have called to her attention that Denver’s efforts were strictly designed for the advantage of students and concerned only free and equal access to education.
I can just imagine the conversation in the Oval Office. “Hey Betsy. Where do you get off praising schools for trying to provide a better education? What they’re doin’ in Denver ain’t no tax cut for the wealthy. You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“But it said ‘Tops in School Choice’ award. Isn’t that what we want?”
“No, no, no. It may look good and actually improve a public schools, but it’s no tax cut for us and our pals. Besides, how we gonna close down public schools if they’re workin’?”
So, dutiful as she is, on March 29, the secretary took to the podium again and with no hint of concern or conflict, she created this headline: “Betsy DeVos Slams Denver Schools.”
Her story now is that even though the DPS programs “appear to be choice-friendly” they are severely lacking.
What do they lack? They lack the ability for rich families to offset their private school tuition with a voucher. If Ms. DeVos had read past the headlines, she would have realized that the Colorado Legislature has twice voted against using public tax money to fund private schools. Coloradans, along with most of the rest of us, agree that public money belongs exclusively in public schools.
Quoting DPS’s Superintendent Tom Boasberg, “We respectfully disagree with Secretary DeVos. We do not support private school vouchers … We ensure equitable systems of enrollment among district schools, where all schools are subject to the same rigorous accountability system. We do not support choice without accountability.”
Private schools function in their own sphere and are not accountable to any citizen elected school board. Private schools should not get taxpayer money without any responsibility to a public commission. Add to this problem, vouchers will not cover 100% tuition. It will take an additional outlay of family money to enroll a student in a private school. The need for additional money creates an even more unjust system barring poor families from equal access to education. Pile on one more fact that millions of students live in rural and small-town America that offer only one school even remotely accessible, and it becomes clear that the number of students able to take advantage of a voucher is quite small.
Rural and small town federal taxes plus taxes from poor and middle income families everywhere would be used to fund a voucher that only rich people in cities can use to send their kids to private schools. All the others chipping in won’t have that choice.
Without the option to use taxpayer money to fund vouchers for private education, the whole purpose for this administration’s backing “school choice” falls apart. Without the unrestricted vouchers, any choice law is simply an education law, not a rich person’s tax break, and for this Executive Branch gang-who-can’t-shoot-straight, that simply won’t do.