Betsy DeVos and the State of Education in America

How DeVos might change the educational system

Regardless of your familiarity with the debate over public education in the U.S., chances are you witnessed the contentious confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

A billionaire philanthropist and longtime Republican fundraiser, DeVos was confirmed by the fewest votes of any other Cabinet secretary in U.S. history: by a single vote, cast by Vice President Mike Pence.

DeVos is a long-time advocate of expanding school choice, a mode of educational reform that lies at the heart of the controversy over her nomination. Not sure what that means? We break down what it is, and why it matters, below.

School Choice

School choice is a broad term for a number of different proposals that would make it easier for parents to use public money to send their child to the school of their choice. This is instead of following the public school tradition of being assigned to a school based on where you live. Educational vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, magnet schools, and charter schools are all elements of the movement for expanded school choice.

In this regard, DeVos is an ideal match for President Trump’s education platform. While campaigning, he called for a $20 billion initiative to support school choice.

It seems that school choice sounds innocuous and promising, but critics argue that it undermines America’s public school system.

It’s also unclear where funding for this program would come from.

Educational Vouchers

Giving parents vouchers to send their kids to whatever school suits them best, whether public, private, charter, homeschool, or other learning environment, is one of the best known examples of school choice. Educational vouchers take the estimated $10,615 it costs to send a child to public school and lets parents use it at a school of their choosing, whether that’s the neighborhood public school, a private school, or a charter.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are, putting it simply, public schools that are privately run. But unlike public schools, which are managed federally, charter schools are operated by non-profits or for-profit companies. As such, they are not subject to the same regulations, apart from standardized tests, as district schools, which means their class size and curriculum can vary.

Tax Credit Programs

Many have pointed to Florida’s tax credit program — through which 92,000 students received scholarships last year —as a model for what DeVos might enact as part of the school choice initiative.

These tax credit programs would differ from voucher programs in that the funds would not go through the state at all (which can create issues if the state-funded dollars funnel into a religious school.)

Instead, individuals or corporations donate to a private, nonprofit scholarship organization. This offsets any tax liabilities; and the money can be given to families to for private school tuition.

Pro vs. Con

Views on school choice tend to be strong and divergent. Advocates like DeVos see it as a way to help disadvantaged children, particularly those in poor urban areas, gain access to higher quality education.

Opponents argue that they hurt public school students because the money (that going to charter schools and potentially paid out in vouchers) comes from the same pot as the funds for public schools, so by helping some students, school choice could be taking away from others.

Past Performance

DeVos’ work in her home state of Michigan, where she was the chair of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school-choice advocacy group, offers us a look at what kinds of programs she may endorse at the federal level.

Michigan boasts one of the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools. But many of those charter schools have test scores below the state average in math and reading; they also serve fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools. Also troubling: voucher schools are legally able to avoid providing adequate resources for disabled students.

Critics also say that charter schools and vouchers could be potentially dangerous for isolated rural areas that not only receive less federal funding than their urban counterparts, but who depend primarily on public schools because they are the only option for many rural communities.

Another criticism is that charter schools stand to bankrupt public schools, especially those that are already struggling financially. And, because vouchers vary by state and school, they do not always cover the full cost of tuition, which can be an additional burden for low-income families, the very ones advocates argue vouchers may benefit from most.

While it’s unclear what DeVos will accomplish as secretary, she will undoubtedly impact education policy in America. What are your thoughts on DeVos’ confirmation? Tell us in the comments.

Join the Discussion

11 Responses to “Betsy DeVos and the State of Education in America”

  1. pdxmom

    Any new plan may have problems and need tweaking. But the definition of
    insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expect different
    results.I am an empty nester this year, after raising three boys through the public school system in Oregon. I am open to change, because the public school system is broken. In Oregon, where we have some of the lowest graduation rates and test scores, the public schools teach to the lowest common denominator, as opposed to challenging kids to live up to their potential. They repeatedly seek multimillion dollar bonds from tax payers, with no explanation where the previous millions went. My kids’ high school lacked electricity and running water in some classrooms, and this was in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Portland! Teachers with long-term and repeated performance issues were recycled throughout the district, because unions make it so hard to fire someone, while young talent remained unemployed or operating as subs. For two years in middle school, my oldest was able to go to a private school. It changed his world. The classes were smaller. The teachers were empowered. The curriculum was challenging and flexible. The arts were integrated. I am sure there are examples of private/charter schools that fail… so put checks in place to monitor their performance. Reward success, address problems. For rural areas, offer on-line options/augments and sister-schools in urban areas. Be creative. Be open. Allow change. Affect it collaboratively as opposed to opposing it just because.

  2. gdonna612

    I agree with pdxmom. When I put my boys into different schools, the change was amazing. Teachers that are failures need to go. Depending on the union to save their jobs should no longer be a reason to keep them on. When they get lazy and complacent, the kids suffer. They tend to blame the child and that is ludicrous.

  3. ztts080910

    I agree with pdxmom as well. I have three graduated children from our public school system and my fourth is going into middle school. We are considering putting her into private high school for a better education. The public school system is broken (in California). There should not be tenure in primary education, bad teachers should lose their jobs. They need to help and empower children, not just push them through because they are tired and frustrated with the system. This helps no one. I am disillusioned with the system and hope that something can change and we can find a better way. Well said pdxmom…What we are doing isn’t working, let’s try to work on a new system. Nothing will work for everyone, but currently this system is working for no one.

  4. disqus_ixKlIIIZmr

    DeVos is the elitist, ignorant product of private schools. Why would we want our educational system to perpetuate such stupidity and ignorance??????

  5. Marie

    Both my children went to private school, my oldest gradated from a private school, but my youngest had to start public school at the beginning of her high career because of lack of funds in our house at the time. I totally agree that the public education system is very broken (in Virginia). The SOL’s are a waste of time and taking away from education in a big way, children are not getting a good education because of them. After experiencing both types of education systems I do feel like my oldest received a much better education then my youngest. Something needs to be done if we are not wanting to raise a bunch of very uneducated people. Children should be able to go to any school that will give them the best education whether it be public or private. These people are the future of this nation.

  6. Laura

    I agree with pdxmom also. The schools in southern Idaho are so crowded there aren’t enough seats. Our state seems to ignore the problem and isn’t interested in increasing the funding, they would rather give tax cuts. Good teachers need to be rewarded and bad teachers need to leave. I am all for integrating disabled students, but there are many programs for students that don’t do well and few for students that do excel. Obviously our education system isn’t up to par or we wouldn’t be importing talent from all over the world to do jobs that our people should be doing.

  7. meredit

    My kids entered public school back in the 70s, initially at a very nice school near our home in a quiet suburb of L.A. When busing began there were some issues (thefts of coats, etc.) but everyone adjusted. When we moved a mile away the school was too far to walk and we moved them to a private school next to the hospital where I worked and a family friend was a teacher. When they moved on to middle school (the private school ended at 7th grade) we enrolled them in an alternative school, the local middle school having issues. Although in a nice neighborhood, the school was separated from a local high school by a park where naughty teens smoked pot and blew toilets up with cherry bombs routinely, right next to our school. Patrol cars were a constant presence. My daughter couldn’t take it any more so took tested out and went to community college, then university. Fast-forward to my career in speech therapy and adult education in local and other public schools. It was really difficult for elementary, middle, and high school principals and teachers to remove disruptive and/or violent students. There were simply too many protections for them and their families, leaving classrooms in chaos intermittently while crises were addressed. That meant loss of learning/teaching time for students and teachers, not to mention emotional turmoil for everyone. It took months for a disturbed student to be assessed and enrolled in Severely Emotionally Disturbed (SED) and other Special Ed programs following multiple meetings of school, district, and county personnel and parents with their county-provided representatives. I know because I attended many many of those meetings both before and after a student had been enrolled in Special Ed classes. In the meantime those students and sometimes cantankerous defensive parents remained in classes, and the disruption continued. Yeh, I get looking out for the rights of disturbed/disabled students and families. But what about the other kids’ right to learn without constant disruptions? We had to pay lots of tuition to escape. It would be nice two generations down the road for today’s parents, whose taxes fund education, and kids to have options other than local public schools if there are problems.

  8. Carmen

    As a retired teacher from the New York City Public School System (after 35 years), all I can say is this. The public school system has a lot of potential for helping all students. I had also worked in private school prior to entering the system and I also, as a student, attended both private and public institutions. From my experience, I can say that private education in any way, shape, or form, has been highly overrated. If New York City is any barometer, the teaching staff of our public schools has to answer to a higher standard of preparation than the teachers in the private sector (M.A. degree at entry level, nowadays). This implies that parents who are sending their children to private school could very well be spending money on a quality of education that could be inferior to that offered in the public schools. Instead of spreading ourselves out, perhaps a little too thin, in the quest to prove which system is superior – private or public, how about channeling the energy into creating one exceptionally good system that provides for everyone? The potential for accomplishing that is out there. Consider, if you will, developing it. Consider also, finding a Secretary of Education who has college credits in education, classroom experience, and extensive interaction with students of all ages. It isn’t all that easy, or even all that possible, to really know what goes on and how to address it unless one has actually physically been there and done that.

  9. John Nowakowski

    She is a breathe of fresh air. Being for children’s education is a foundation necessary for our country’s future.

    • laurapalmer

      Oh the irony of your typo in a comment about education.

    • John Nowakowski

      Sometimes when you least expect it, a typo gets a small minded person’s attention. Happy to provoke a response on purpose. LoL.