This week, the United States Senate proceeded with the confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nomination for the Secretary of Education. Since Trump announced DeVos as his pick last November, public school advocates have expressed their concerns about the lobbyist. In addition to never working in a classroom setting, DeVos’ history in Michigan — where she has championed charter schools with laser sharp focus and little regard to their performance — has left some questioning whether she will indeed advocate effectively for all public education and for accountability within charter schools.
That, in addition to questionable remarks made during the hearings this week, which included her alarming advocacy for guns in school buildings (to support the controversial stance, she suggested that at least one school in Wyoming would need guns to protect against grizzly bears) and her inability to identify the difference between “growth” and “proficiency” regarding student performance.
Sen. Al Franken discovers Trump Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos doesn't know the difference between proficiency and growth. pic.twitter.com/QFQchwHhuc— Keith Boykin (@keithboykin) January 18, 2017
For New York City Council Member Inez Barron, the Chair of the Council’s Committee on Higher Education, there is no question about it. DeVos is “a horrible choice.”
As Barron shares with ESSENCE, “in keeping with the pattern of the president-elect, [DeVos] has no background at all in education in terms of her training and preparation. She is not an educator. She has not held an educational leadership position in the school setting. She has no credentials in education. She has no training in pedagogy or curriculum, and she has not been involved in the day-to-day operation of the education system.”
DeVos’ primary connection to education? Bankrolling lobbying efforts for the charter school movement while undermining regulations that would hold those schools accountable for producing successful outcomes. As the chair of the pro-school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children and through the Great Lakes Education Project, a political action committee her family started, DeVos “has helped architect the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools,” as reported by Stephen Henderson in the Detroit Free Press.
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Charter schools have gained traction among some Black families around the country, who want another academic option outside of the traditional school system. But DeVos’ work in Michigan—particularly in Detroit where 79 percent of the state’s charters are located and where its school district has a Black student population of 82 percent— has not proven to offer an especially better option. With test scores that look nearly identical to those of public schools, and with “half the charters performing only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools,” DeVos’s championing of charter schools seems less about providing excellent education and more about profits.
DeVos has advanced the proliferation of for-profit charter schools. As Henderson states in his scathing critique of DeVos’ unflinching support of these schools, even those that “fail academically are worth keeping open because they can make money. Michigan leads the nation in the number of schools operated for profit, while other states moved to curb the expansion of for-profit charters, or banned them outright.”
In a November press release, Randi Winegard, the President of the American Federation of Teachers, proclaimed that “the president-elect, in his selection of Betsy DeVos, has chosen the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education. Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.”
But what might this mean for Black students?
Some charter school advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach, though this comes with reservations about DeVos’ background.
“The key role of the federal government [in education] is to have real accountability so that we have the data we need to make choices about our student’s education,” states Nicole Brisbane, the New York State Director of Democrats for Education Reform. “In the event we don’t, it poses a real threat to the progress we’ve seen in education in the last eight years. We want people to be empowered with a choice, but we want to ensure that there is equity. [DeVos] comes from so much privilege that you don’t know if she has a real grasp of the underlying, unintended consequences of some of what she’s promoted.”
And, what DeVos has promoted has been the “unregulated, unfettered growth of charter schools, good or bad,” Brisbane shares.
Christina Brown, an educator and educational leader for nearly two decades and the Executive Director of New Heights Academy Charter School, the largest independent charter school in Manhattan, has concerns about how this could affect the performance and perceptions of Black students. If a lack of accountability means achievement is lost, “that would contribute to the idea that [Black] students are not prepared for college.”
Council Member Barron, who has also worked in the public school system as an educator and principal, finds that some charter schools can be especially adverse to the intellectual development of young, Black boys. Barron draws upon the work Dr. Amos Wilson, the noted African-American psychologist, in discussing her assessment of some charter school environments. There are “standards of uniformity, but there is very little opportunity for the expression of our young Black men who often have a high level of energy, which Dr. Wilson discusses in his literature. I’m all for discipline. I was known as a disciplinarian when I taught. What I’ve seen [in charter schools] where children are robotized is not a good look.” “[After being] heavily penalized,” she continues “many of those children get sent back to the public school they came from. This doesn’t provide a good learning experience”
In addition to DeVos’ unrelenting support of charter schools, however failing, the nominee has “supported anti-gay causes and opposed the Michigan civil rights ballot initiative that advances affirmative action,” Barron highlights.
Policy makers around the country have similar reservations. The confirmation hearing, initially scheduled for last Wednesday, was pushed back a week in light of concerns about DeVos subpar qualifications. New York City Council Members, including Barron, have submitted a letter to their U.S. Senators urging them to vote against DeVos’ confirmation.
If the confirmation goes forward, educators and policy makers will likely have to continue to press for rules at the federal level to ensure charter schools, if they are expanded under DeVos’ tenure as Secretary, are held accountable. Educators will also have to fight for equity so that the education gap between Black children and their peers does not continue to widen. It may be the best we can hope for, given we’re under a presidential administration and potential cabinet that has ranged from aggressively white supremacist to apathetic to issues of equity.