Thursday, June 4, 2020
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On Trump’s nomination for education secretary

After Donald Trump won the caucus in Nevada for the Republican nomination, about a year ago now, he told a cheering crowd, “I love the poorly educated.”

West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids

We can think of President Trump picking much of his cabinet like a bride picking outfits for her wedding party. For example, in the 2008 film 27 Dresses, as Jane is showing Kevin an “olivey green” bridesmaid dress she says “looks great on,” he tells her, “Uh, no, I’m telling you that this is an instrument of torture inflicted on you by a bride who wants you to look ugly.” Why would Mr Trump pick people who actually look better in their roles than he does?

The Senate will soon vote on his nomination of Betsy DeVos as US secretary of education. I have no position on that nomination, but it must be known that Ms DeVos has never attended or worked in a public school or run a large institution of any sort. To think that her experience as a mentor or tutor to public school students somehow qualifies her to sit atop the largest educational agency in the country is a delusion.

What she has done is support laws in Michigan, some of which strip down accountability requirements for private schools. Her advocacy for charter schools in Michigan, where many of those schools are run by for-profit corporations, has led to the sinking of more than $1 billion of the state’s taxpayer money into corporations that aren’t even accountable to the government for educational results, according to an analysis by The Detroit Free Press.

Therein lies the rub: Maybe private corporations can run schools better than our current educational bureaucracies, and private schools often provide for the needs of certain kids much better than public schools can. Private schools serve specific needs, since our students have a wide, wide range of needs, from having to wait at a reasonable time for a bus to pick them up to learning about genetics. Fulfilling those needs shouldn’t be a profit engine, though, which is what too many charter schools in Michigan have turned it into.

Once you focus your success, as corporations do, on profit, you divert that focus away from educational goals, like social and academic learning. Online schools, which are total profit engines, if combined into a single school district, would make the ninth-largest school district in the country and would be among the worst performing. That’s the kind of thing that happens when the goal is profit and kids, who are just learning lots of this stuff, are involved.

So excusing schools that receive federal (or state) taxpayer dollars from the strict (or at least equivalent) accountability requirements the government demands from public schools is a recipe for disaster. People will make money, but kids won’t get a higher quality of education. Indeed, in Michigan, the Free Press analysis found lots of waste, double-dipping, and other financial activity that didn’t in any way contribute to the quality of education kids receive.

On the other hand, this lack of accountability gives private schools and charter schools a bad reputation that is not deserved. Private schools, including charter schools, like Ms DeVos’s husband’s school at the airport in Grand Rapids, meet the needs for a certain group of students. The West Michigan Aviation Academy, for instance, focuses on a theme of “physics first,” which works for many students. It doesn’t have a symphony orchestra, so it wouldn’t work for all Americans, but some kids don’t ever want to learn to play the violin.

Charter schools can’t (and won’t) disappear from the education landscape in America, but when federal tax dollars are involved, those schools need to be accountable. As Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, asked Ms DeVos at her hearing if she would insist on “equal accountability” for all schools that receive federal funding, “whether public, public charter or private,” all she could come up with was the “I support accountability” refrain.

Not necessarily “equal” accountability, just “accountability.” That’s not good enough at the federal level. I couldn’t believe how hard Mr Kaine pressed the issue, just trying to pin Ms DeVos down on equality. She wouldn’t budge.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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