President-elect Trump offered few specifics about his education policy during the campaign other than promising $20 billion in federal money for school choice initiatives in response to our “failing government schools.” Where this money is to come from is unclear, but the sum represents more than a quarter of the total budget of the department of education. Educational advocates are fearful that the funds will be cannibalized from the $15 billion earmarked for low income schools through Title I funding in the form of school vouchers. The use of the Title I funds for vouchers that follow students to expensive private and religious schools as well as charter schools will further deplete the scant resources currently allocated to poorly performing schools. This nebulous education policy will be overseen by President-elect Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, which is sending more than shudders through the education community. Educational historian Diane Ravitch said of Ms. DeVos, “Never has anyone been appointed to lead [the Office of Education] in the past 150 years who was hostile to public education.” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has decried Ms. DeVos as “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” in the past 40 years. Ms. DeVos, a billionaire conservative educational activist who has never sent her own children to public schools, has laudably argued that a child’s zip code should not confine him to failing schools. But her solution, unfortunately, is to embrace adoption of school vouchers, as well as the expansion of privately-operated charter schools, leaving critics fearful that our new education secretary will “gut” our public schools. This appointment may be one of the rare time where many parents of students with all abilities and unions and schools are all united.
To understand what a DeVos school-choice initiative would like and what her priorities as education secretary would be, we need look no further than her local state of Michigan, where 80% of charter schools are operated by for profit ventures. Detroit has the second–largest share of students in charter schools in the country, and Ms. Devos was one of the architects of the charter schools in Detroit and Michigan more than 20 years ago. The result, according to Douglas Harris in an editorial in The New York Times, is “the biggest school reform disaster in the country.” Math and reading scores for Detroit students, who participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress test of student academic schools, has remained among the worst among large city schools since 2009. According to a 2015 federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools, “an unreasonably high” percentage of charter schools are among the lowest performing schools in the state. Ironically, the purpose of charter schools was to “raise all schools,” according to Scott Romney, an attorney and board member of a Detroit civic group. Instead, Detroit has had “a total and complete collapse of education in the city.”
One reason critics posit that Detroit and Michigan charter schools perform so poorly is lack of oversight, which Ms. DeVos has rigorously denied. Ms. DeVos entered educational advocacy primarily as a backer of statewide voucher programs, which was considered a “fringe idea” until her family pushed it to the front and center of the Republican Party. After the failure of a legislative initiative to institute vouchers in Michigan, Ms. DeVos helped found the Great Lakes Education Project in 2001, to which DeVos family members have donated $1.47 million. The Great Lakes Education Project lobbied hard and successfully this year to exclude a bipartisan compromise to provide a commission to provide oversight of failing schools in Michigan legislation, which was designed to address the financially strapped Detroit Public Schools. The proposed commission would have set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing charters schools could replicate. The Great Lakes Education Project feared that such a commission would have favored the public schools over the charter schools. Meanwhile, the resulting Michigan legislation, which awaits Senate approval, divides the Detroit Public Schools into two districts—the old Detroit Public Schools, which is responsible for paying off debt, and the Detroit Community Schools, which will provide the education. However, the new Detroit Community Schools cannot survive 10 years due to an inadequate funding plan. It is not hard to see how the poor inner-city students will be totally short-changed under this system.
The Great Lakes Education Project has been explicit in its goal—the end of the Detroit Public Schools. Our future education secretary, Betsy DeVos, wrote in a 2016 editorial in the Detroit News, “Rather than create a new traditional school district to replace the failed DPS, we should liberate all students from this woefully under-performing district model and provide in its place a system of schools where performance and competition create high-quality opportunities for kids.” Thus, our new education secretary wishes to eliminate the public school system and replace it with privatized, charterized, and unregulated schools. Public education has been a corner-stone of what America has always stood for but apparently no more under Trump-DeVos.
There are good charter schools, but many of them maintain their success by systematically selecting higher achieving students and excluding students who may have challenges. As a special education attorney and knowing that there will be an increasing focus on charter schools, I am concerned about how well students with disabilities are served by charter schools, which must adhere to federal law, including the IDEA. As I have blogged before, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in 2012 that indicated that Federal intervention is needed to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access their free appropriate public education (FAPE) in charter schools. According to the GAO fewer students with disabilities are enrolled in charter schools (8.2%) compared to traditional public schools (11.2%). An even lower percentage of students with cognitive disabilities (0.84%) are enrolled in charter schools than public schools (0.45%). I have represented a number of students who have attended public charter schools, which are required to provide a free appropriate public education, that were either ill-equipped or misrepresented their ability to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
COPAA, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, released a detailed analysis in June 2012 on how charter schools were servicing children with disabilities, and the results were fairly scathing. In preparing the report, COPAA examined 5000 publicly funded charter schools, most located in urban, underperforming school districts. Their numbers about disparate enrollments of students with special needs jive with those of the GAO report. COPAA examined three public school districts that rely heavily on charter schools—New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. Whereas the rate of special needs students in the New Orleans Recovery School District public schools is 12.6%, only 7.8% of charter school students have disabilities. Whereas Los Angeles public schools have 11% students with disabilities, that number drops to less than 7% in the charter schools. Additionally, COPAA found that students with more significant disabilities were excluded from charter schools through a process of “selectivity, controlled outreach, counseling out, and other push out practices.”
David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center and a civil rights attorney, wrote, “In short, it is not an exaggeration to call the Trump-DeVos education agenda an all-out assault on our public schools, the centerpiece of which is the diversion of billions of dollars from public education to private spending.” Rather than merely wringing his hands, Mr. Sciarra offers us action steps. Mr. Sciarra reminds us that education policy is the domain of state governments, not the federal government, and it is at the state level where we must “energize existing coalitions and campaigns of parents, educators, students and community organizations to protect and defend the public schools.”
Mr. Sciarra recommends that we participate in the following:
- Urge congressional representatives to oppose the appointment of Ms. DeVos and remain vigilant for and argue against efforts to dismantle the Office of Civil Rights or the transfer of Title I funds
- Argue against your state accepting federal funding that is contingent upon defrauding public education
- Get involved in legislative campaigns for charter school reform to ensure full accountability
- Review state-level student and civil rights laws and ensure their protection
In opposition to the pessimism that has engulfed many of us have since the election, Mr. Sciarra optimistically suggests that a Trump administration will afford state level advocates the opportunity to join together to ensure equal and quality education for all students. Mr. Sciarra has provided us with specific suggestions for future advocacy for those who have wondered what the “resistance” might look like and what their role in it might be.
I would never argue that to be a successful teacher or pediatrician one must first be a parent, but I would suggest that a proposed Education Secretary must himself or herself have personally experienced public schools. Billionaire Betsy DeVos never sent her children to public schools; she instead home schooled them according to her Christian beliefs, which is of course her right. However, those beliefs, in conjunction with her conservative free market agenda, will inform her positions on public education, resulting in a fundamental disruption in our country’s proud provision of equity education to all students—even the most vulnerable. Hold on this will not be the last blog on Ms. and likely soon to be Secretary DeVos.