This past year has been full of political surprises. Donald Trump pulled off an unexpected presidential election victory, the inaugural turnout attracted a tremendous amount of controversy and the Senate recently confirmed Betsy DeVos as the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education due to a historic tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence.
DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, philanthropist and activist, has never held elected office and continues to face unprecedented opposition in the Senate after receiving more “no” votes than previous nominees for her position.
Before DeVos’s confirmation, she chaired the American Federation for Children (AFC), an organization that promotes the system of school choice, which allows public funds to be allocated to non-public school programs. Some of these programs include charter, private, religious and home-based schools. Charter schools are often privately operated but located within a public school district.
Often, students are issued “vouchers” that enable them to transfer to one of those schools by bringing with them their proportionate share of funding from their public school district.
Over the course of the past two decades, DeVos focused her efforts in her home state of Michigan, where some of the worst-performing schools in the nation are located.
Although Michigan spends $1 billion on charter schools each year, their accountability and academic progress has yielded abysmal results.
In a 2015 Corruption Risk Report Card from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), Michigan’s accountability laws and government transparency received a failing grade and the lowest score in the nation. Despite these disappointing results, last November, President Donald J. Trump proposed a $20 billion federally funded voucher education plan and nominated DeVos as the Secretary of Education.
Brian Wilson, a Paly journalism teacher, recounts the hardships he faced throughout his 18 years of teaching in Michigan.
“Public schools face a budget crunch every year, and it seems to be getting worse,” Wilson said. “Most teachers haven’t received any substantial raise in the last decade, and most are actually making less money now than they were 10 years ago.”
According to Wilson, one of biggest problems with charter schools is that they close when they become unprofitable.
“When schools are turned into a profit-making industry, there is little incentive for the people in charge to keep them open when they aren’t making money,” Wilson said. “Charter programs, in some cases, are open one day and closed the next, leaving students in the lurch. Since there is no government oversight, these are schools that don’t really have to show any progress or level of success.”
Max McGee, superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), hopes to see DeVos invest the majority of her time in public education instead of placing an emphasis on charter or private schools.
“Secretary DeVos would be well-advised to spend some time in public schools, identifying what is working well and replicating those practices rather than trying to privatize public schools,” McGee said. “There’s plenty of high-poverty, high-performing school districts that have closed the achievement gap, so let’s learn from these districts rather than assume privatization is just the way to go.”
Additionally, DeVos, a devout Christian, has financially supported Christian schools through donations and vouchers.
If DeVos attempts to integrate a nationwide Christian agenda, McGee strongly believes that the courts will evaluate the constitutional validity of her actions.
“America was founded on the freedom of religion, freedom of speech [and] freedom of the press, so I think anything that will interfere with [these principles] will certainly be subject to judicial review,” McGee said.
Board of Education member Todd Collins believes that PAUSD’s financial condition may not necessarily be affected by DeVos’ policies. It’s not clear how her policies will translate into federal funding of schools.
Currently, the district only receives 1.6 percent of its annual revenue, or $3.6 million from the federal government, compared to $166 million collected from local property taxes.
“If the federal government does change the way it funds schools like Palo Alto, then we will have a choice,” Collins said. “I think [our control over the curriculum] will depend on what our fiscal situation is at the time and how onerous whatever they’re asking us to do might be. While there are certain things that may impact us, in general, I think things will be much more the same than they are different.”
Head of Castilleja School Nanci Kauffman believes that school choice has its benefits and flaws.
“Let me start by saying that there is good intention behind funding school choice in order to make excellent schools accessible to all families,” Kauffman said. “The problem with the plan, however, is that ultimately, we have a responsibility to fully fund our public schools. Many believe that like vouchers, charter schools will divert money away from our public schools.”
While Palo Alto maybe one of the last areas directly affected by DeVos’s policies, Wilson believes that school districts should continue to sustain public schools.
“I think every school district in the country has a vested interest in making sure that the public school system is supported and kept viable,” Wilson said. “Schools in lower-income areas will be immediately impacted if there is a concerted effort to encourage parents to take their students elsewhere.”
Following DeVos’ nomination, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie proposed a bill to eliminate the Department of Education.
McGee and Collins do not support this legislation.
“While education in the United States is largely regulated at the state level, the federal Department of Education has an incredibly important role in setting standards and guiding the very wide variety of school districts we have in the country in the right direction,” Collins said.
Wilson thinks that a variety of school systems can coexist without much conflict, as private schools and public institutions have existed in harmony for a long time.
“Ninety percent of American kids are educated via the public school system, but another tenth of our students are already in a different system,” Wilson said. “Many charter schools, at least in California, are successful and provide a good alternative for segments of the population. We shouldn’t be afraid to get better, but it needs to be done the right way.”