Despite DeVos Vote, Democrats will Capitulate on Education

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Democrats mounted an admirable effort to stop the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

The vote finally passed today with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote.  This was a historic near-win for the Democrats and shows promise for the millions of people who have spent their own time pressuring their representatives to reject DeVos. It is a heartening defeat.

But when you look at the track record of Democrats who occupy seats in the House and Senate, there is clear evidence that many of them don’t even disagree with Betsy DeVos, and are likely to support many of the plans she has for public education in the United States.  While the Democratic party is ostensibly the party of labor unions, many of their most successful and high profile politicians have made a career out of ‘school reform,’ a movement that blames teachers and their unions for poor student outcomes and re-appropriates public funds to private enterprises in the hope that market based solutions will improve children’s education.

The effort has already begun.

Cory Booker, once mayor of Newark and now the Senator from New Jersey, once sat on the board of the Alliance for School Choice.  His fellow board member?  Betsy DeVos.

Booker famously teamed up with Governor Chris Christie and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to put $100 million in Silicon Valley dollars to work to drastically overhaul teacher compensation and expand the charter school system in the city.  I highly recommend this interview of Dale Russakoff who wrote the book on this project if you’d like to learn more in depth.

Rather than roll out this plan to their constituents, like public policy tends to be rolled out, Booker and Zuckerberg made the announcement on Oprah, to rapturous applause.

The actual teachers, parents and activists in Newark were outraged to learn of the effort on television. Booker housed the funds in the ‘Foundation for Newark’s Future.’  Board seats were only available to donors who donated $5 million or more.  This meant no one who actually lived in Newark would have any say over how the money was spent.

Chris Christie used his powers as governor to help Newark rewrite the contracts by which teachers in Newark were paid.  Zuckerberg desperately wanted to give the district power to fire bad performing teachers and give huge bonuses to those who performed well, but he had no idea that any adjustment to seniority tenure laws had to pass a heavily Democratic New Jersey state legislature, so any change to that law was dead on arrival.  And for good reason – if a billionaire comes into your city, do you really want him to be able to throw his money around and fire teachers with a legacy and roots in your community, based on performance on an arbitrary test?

His effort to reward teachers was similarly hampered by the realities of public financing. A 20-year contract containing huge bonuses could not be signed when his $100 million would run out in just a few years.  Those big bonuses ended as $3,000 bumps for the best teachers, and required significantly more hours and effort to earn. As experts in incentives will tell you, most people would rather work for free for something they care about, than earn a trifling amount that ties their efforts to greater oversight and scrutiny.  The fact is that cash-based incentives are not scalable across a district as large as Newark’s in a public model.

So why not Charter Schools?

The main impact the Zuckerberg initiative had on Newark schools was to double the number of kids going to charter schools.  This had a deleterious effect on public education, as charter students bring their public school funds with them.  This forced school closures around the city, forcing students who previously walked to school to change their path through bad neighborhoods or sit on hour long bus rides at 5am every day.  Now, the charter schools in Newark did outperform the district schools, at least at first.  But this was not the case statewide, and it obscured the larger problem with charter schools that well-meaning Democrats seem to ignore.

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Democrats weakness on ‘school choice’ would be understandable if there was evidence that private and charter schools were better for kids.

Charter schools are privately-run, publicly-funded hybrid schools which are independent of the school districts they draw their students from.  They are often managed by for-profit companies and they earn their money by collecting a per-student fee from local governments for each student they educate, presuming they perform to an adequate level.  They manage their own finances and hire their own teachers, and often administer their own curriculums.

And they fail at an alarming rate.

30% of charter schools in Florida fail, leaving children with no school to attend and taking public funds with them.  Horror stories are rampant of schools which open to much fanfare, admit thousands of students, and are closed by October, with their managing boards moving on to swindle another locality by the following year.

Charters promote the resegregation of public schools.

One supposedly magic tool of charter schools is their ability to dismiss teachers who underperform.  The sad reality is that their main tactic is actually to dismiss students who underperform in order to maintain standards.  Expulsions of underperforming students, who tend to come from poorer backgrounds, is rampant in the charter school industry.  This leads to significant disparities in income inequality, race, and ethnic make-up of charters versus the public system. This leaves the most disadvantaged kids behind, appropriating public funds to help the rich get an even easier time of it, violating the entire purpose of public education.

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Charters don’t actually teach any better!

Charter schools often have abysmal diversity in the content of their education.  Because they operate for-profit and must show progress in specifically tested areas, they focus their attention solely on reading comprehension and testable math skills, to the exclusion of the sciences, technology, humanities and physical education.  This narrow focus on objectives is common in the business world, but it is a disaster for education in a civil society hoping to educate its young in a balanced and meaningful way.  This testing culture has infected public schools as well, and is the main complaint about the Common Core.  But it’s even worse in charter schools which have no legacy of multidisciplinary instruction to guide them.

Even with this tragically narrow focus, most charter schools do not outperform most public schools.  Highly regarded studies of test data have shown that students from public schools do better on standardized testing than those at charters.  The median charter school is worse than the median public school. The exceptions to this analysis are well funded urban charters in New York and other densely populated cities, and when compared to the criminally neglected public systems in those cities, there seems to be a large disparity.  But the successes of these elite academies cannot be scaled to a nationwide system, as property tax income in 98% of localities cannot support expensive academies which pay teachers upward of $200,000 a year, or provide the steady churn of talented and dedicated teachers willing to work in adverse conditions for even a few short years.

Charters are a cover for religious education to take public financing.

Betsy DeVos’s vision is one where rural communities have their limited public education funds redirected to religious schools that reject the Theory of Evolution and replace it with nonsense.  Such schools would be a nightmare for LGBT students to attend, since they would offer zero counseling or services to kids in a vulnerable time in their lives.  Democrats who enable this movement enable the reintroduction of religious intolerance and ignorance into publicly funded education.

Photography for the Mystic Valley Charter Schools.

The charter movement will not solve the widespread public education issues this country faces.

There are problems in public education, yes, and work must be done to improve it.  But the charter movement will permanently injure our nationwide system of local schooling.  It will cripple the bargaining power of our country’s most important civil service union, and it will put our money in the hands of technocrats, investors and churches and we will never get it back.

But many Democrats are willing to experiment with it anyway, and to team up with billionaires and religious fanatics like DeVos to try and get some bipartisan cred.  They’re willing to sell out their most ardent supporters in the teachers unions while selling the most important civil service our country to wealthy investors, who see it as a cash cow.

Voters must remind Democrats that public education is a right, and it is a public good, not a business.  We have to support our teachers by demanding Democrats reject so called ‘right-to-work’ legislation that allows scab workers to undermine the unions that protect their jobs and pay.  We need to reject any and all attempts by the Department of Education to redirect our tax dollars into the hands of opportunistic investors who would profit from the demolition of public schools.  We have to reject the empty promises of those who would turn our schools into bible colleges, leaving no services or sanctuary for LGBT youth who would be forced to attend them.

We lost this fight, but we have to win the war.  We can’t tolerate any politician who capitulates to the destruction of public education in America.

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