Devos’ “School Choice” Means No Choice for Many American Families

September 25, 2017 Sarah Riley

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sparked controversy this summer during a speech she delivered at the union’s biennial TEACH (Together Educating America’s Children) conference. While criticizing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ reform agenda, Weingarten said, “Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only politer cousins of segregation.”

Graphic of Pete Railand of the Just Seeds art collective that reads Save Our Public Schools

School choice advocates immediately shot back, questioning the historical accuracy of Weingarten’s statements. Jeanne Allen, Founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, called for Weingarten’s resignation. It is unquestionably true that white supremacists used school vouchers to resist the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which desegregated public schools. It is also true that teachers unions have a complex history, which is deeply intertwined with the country’s segregationist past. Prior to 1951, southern affiliates of the National Education Association denied Black teachers membership. Decades later, the United Federation of Teachers vigorously opposed local control in the Black and Latinx neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn in favor of protecting its mostly white membership. Neither teachers unions nor school choice advocates are beyond reproach, and their histories deserve a critical look if we intend to implement successful reforms moving forward.

Over and over, DeVos has passed the burden of securing high-quality education off onto parents by refusing to hold schools and states accountable to the families they serve.

Unfortunately, while Weingarten and Allen (both White women) debate which of them is more racist in an attempt to score political points, DeVos is advancing a dangerous agenda that should alarm even the most ardent school choice supporters. The US Department of Education’s proposed 2018 budget would cut funding for public schools by over $9 billion, which amounts to phasing out or eliminating 22 programs. $2 billion for teacher development and class-size reduction, $1.2 billion for afterschool and summer programming, and $190 million for literacy development would be eliminated. The budget also proposes deep cuts to Head Start and a $5.8 billion reduction in funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) over the next 10 years. Although congress is not likely to accept the department’s budget as is, it reveals where DeVos’ priorities are (and where they are not).

In addition to supporting drastic spending cuts, DeVos has repeatedly refused to commit to protecting our country’s most vulnerable students. During her testimony in May before a House Appropriations Subcommittee. When asked if she would give federal dollars to schools which discriminated against African American or LGBTQ students, DeVos dodged the question, saying only: “The bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s education and schooling decisions.” Later in her testimony, she conceded that her vision for school choice did not include protections for students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Over and over, DeVos has passed the burden of securing high-quality education off onto parents by refusing to hold schools and states accountable to the families they serve. When asked during an Associated Press interview in August what she would do to ensure that states are “doing the job that they’re supposed to be doing,” DeVos replied: “Well, I think the first line of accountability is frankly with the parents. When parents are choosing school they are proactively making that choice. And schools are accountable to the parents.” But in the absence of rigorous accountability standards, schools are not accountable to parents at all. In fact, as DeVos herself pointed out, private schools that participate in her federal school choice policy would be exempt from equal treatment of people of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities. Further, these exemptions would extend to schools’ academic standards and outcomes. While it is true that dissatisfied families can theoretically put their children in a different school, DeVos underestimates the hardship and disruption of that process. And in the absence of federal accountability, it is not clear that the alternatives accessible to families would be any better.