Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Betsy DeVos's lack of expertise has been cited as a point of opposition to her appointment, but as this morning's commentators remarked, DeVos was not appointed for her expertise. She was appointed to shake up the system. She, in fact, describes herself as a disruptor. This is her claim to fame. If this is the basis for her appointment, however, she is still not a good choice for Secretary Education. The problem with some disruptors is that they do not know enough about the thing they seek to disrupt to actually disrupt it. They speak with bluster, but in the end, that is all it is.
Anyone who thinks the Department of Education has not been disruptive as of late and is just doing the same old things has not been watching closely. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shook up the education status quo like no one in a long time. He went after teacher rights and public school monopolies. Teacher unions and tenure have long been seen as immovable aspects of the status quo that prevented serious reform. Likewise, traditional public schools' "monopoly" on education made competition and institutional reforms similarly difficult.
Arne Dunce broke the backs of both of these pillars of education. Through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers, he encouraged, cajoled, coerced, and compelled more than forty states to institute teacher evaluation systems that fundamentally altered the way teachers are hired, fired, retained, promoted, and tenured in many places. These changes were so radical that they generated a series of lawsuits in places like Texas, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and New York, alleging that teachers' constitutional rights had been violated.
Likewise, when state education budgets were in free-fall during the recession, Duncan told states that if they did not lift their caps on the number of charter schools they would create, he would, in effect, kill their applications for new federal funding. This move, combined with other factors, resulted in the number of students attending charter schools doubling during the recession. Although Duncan did not compel it, while states were at it, several also drastically expanded their voucher programs. Caps on who could apply for a voucher were lifted and voucher funding doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and septupled in some instances.
These are the same types of policies DeVos supports. So the policies she wants to bring to Washington are already there. In fairness, she would seek to significantly expand these policies, but this is not disruption; this is fueling the system. If we look back at Duncan's tenure, would she say she wants to fuel much of his system? If that is all she would do, is she really the leader she claims to be? Would parents be excited about her ideas?
The one type of disruption we need and have not seen in Washington in decades is a serious commitment to equal access to learning opportunities. The Every Student Succeeds Act is one of the worst examples of gutting this concept from federal policy. And charters, vouchers, and other choice-like reforms are insulting substitutes for equal access to learning opportunities. They espouse the premise that all students are entitled to equal learning opportunities and reason that since students are not getting those equal opportunities in public school, they should be allowed to go elsewhere. The irony is that the people promoting these policies are so often unwilling to do much of anything to ensure students get equal access to learning in regular public schools. Likewise, they are unwilling to place oversight on vouchers and charters to determine whether opportunities are equal there either. In other words, they are pursuing choice for choice's sake, and the reasoning in support of choice is circular.
This leaves us in a tough place. Those who want disruption through DeVos will not get it. And if they understood enough about the system to know what real disruption is, they probably would not want it.
As a small update, DeVos's hearing has been postponed from today until next week so that she can complete her financial disclosures and other paperwork.