Today Betsy DeVos was offered and accepted the Secretary of Education position in Trump’s cabinet. Her entire strategy for improving this country’s schools can, it seems, be boiled down to one word: “choice.”
Here is a speech she made in 2014 which includes this quote “The traditional education industry is really good at two things: Bucking and criticizing change and protecting grown up jobs.”
Her theory of the power of choice fits in well with Trump’s idea to divert $20 billion in federal money from public schools for school choice including vouchers for private school. Trump, in the announcement, said “Under her leadership, we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.”
One thing Teach For America is quite good at is promoting itself and the modern ed ‘reform’ movement. During the Obama administration, especially, TFA has gotten a lot of taxpayer money to help grow and has been very public about supporting various reform strategies, like Common Core and school and teacher accountability based on value-added teacher ratings. When the reform movement rebranded itself a bit by replacing Arne Duncan with John King, TFA also softened their tone on the ‘status quo’ and other reform mantras.
From a financial point of view, it is good for TFA for Trump to be president. Not only will TFA get a lot of money for proving that union teachers are a bunch of free loaders, but the charter schools that spouses of TFA higher ups run (Both founder Wendy Kopp and CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard are married to people who are major players in the KIPP and YES charter chains) will be getting a disproportionate piece of that $20 billion if it happens.
But TFA also a social justice organization. They are proud of their 150 DACA corps members and they fight, in their own way, against many forms of discrimination. So when Trump was elected, Villanueva-Beard wrote about her concerns.
Then, today, after the DeVos announcement, TFA wrote a ‘statement’ on it. The statement began:
Following the president-elect’s indisputably hostile and racially charged campaign that on many points was in conflict with Teach For America’s core values and mission, the organization today released a statement on the occasion of the appointment of Secretary Designate Betsy DeVos to the U.S. Department of Education:
Teach For America lives by our values and always stands in solidarity with the most vulnerable students. The children we work for, and we ourselves, are Native, Black, Jewish, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, White, Immigrant, Muslim, LGBTQ, living with disabilities, and more. The Teach For America community includes more than 50,000 people from all backgrounds and political ideologies. We value diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, and we refuse to accept racism, bigotry, or discrimination in any form.
We call on the secretary designee and president-elect to uphold these values in pursuit of an excellent and equitable public education for all. We have worked in a bipartisan way to advance educational opportunities specifically for low-income communities and communities of color. We will continue to fiercely advocate and defend policies that are core to our mission and that increase opportunity for our students, including:
What followed were these eleven ‘policies’.
- Protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and passage of the DREAM Actand pathways to citizenship for individuals brought to our country as children.
- Preservation of high expectations and swift interventions for schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act
- Reauthorization of a Higher Education Act that expands access for qualified low-income Americans to demonstrably high-value colleges
- SAFE classrooms for LGBTQ youth and teachers
- Safe classrooms for students and teachers with disabilities
- Safe classrooms for Muslim students and teachers
- Culturally responsive teaching and training and supporting our teachers in these practices
- School accountability and transparency regardless of public school governance model
- Using evidence and data to drive instruction and teacher improvement and development over time
- Preservation and expansion of the unique and critical bipartisan commitment to national service
- Halting the school-to-prison pipeline, including training teachers on equitable classroom management and restorative school and community practices
Of the eleven, five of them (DACA, Higher Education Act, and Safe classrooms LGBTQ, students with disabilities, and Muslim students) seem to be in response to Trump’s tone throughout the campaign. Had TFA just had these five, I don’t think there would be much to write about here.
Two of the policies (culturally responsive teaching and halting the school-to-prison pipeline) are kind of strange to put on this list. Not that these aren’t good things, but I think they are pretty nebulous and I don’t think the Secretary of Education is that involved with either of those two anyway.
One of the policies is about the commitment to national service which, to me, seems to be a way of saying that TFA should continue getting their taxpayer allowance, even as their recruitment numbers have been shrinking over the past few years.
The remaining three are the most revealing to me as they promote the typical reformer mantras.
There’s policy number two about high standards. This could be a plea to not oppose the Common Core which TFA has been very supportive of. In the new ESEA, state’s don’t have to use the Common Core, specifically, but they do need to have “challenging academic standards” which, I believe, the Secretary of Education may have the power to approve or not. My problem with forcing states to have “challenging academic standards” is that it implies that teachers, because they are lazy and/or negligent, have been purposely teaching at a much lower level than they should be. I don’t believe this to be true and I see it as a form of teacher bashing to imply that.
Then there’s policy number eight about ‘accountability.’ Accountability has been used as a weapon to fire teachers and close schools throughout the country based on highly flawed metrics. Obama and Duncan did a lot of damage with this one and maybe TFA feels that they used it in a fair way, even if I don’t. But that same weapon in the hands of Trump and DeVos should be something that TFA should be concerned about. I don’t think that this was something that TFA needed to ask the new Secretary to be vigilant. Based on the contempt she has shown for public schools and teachers over the years, it’s pretty clear that DeVos will use her power to try to make it even easier to fire teachers and close schools. This could have a negative effect on not just all the TFA alumni who are still working in public schools, but also for the ones who are at the few charter schools that try to keep their most needy students and whose test scores suffer for it. In the bigger picture, I think that having DeVos too strong on accountability will negatively affect so many students in this country.
Finally there’s policy number nine about using “evidence and data” to ‘drive’ “teacher improvement and development over time.” This is code for trying to use test scores and value-added metrics to rate teachers, no matter how inaccurate those metrics are.
More telling than the policies TFA chose to include on this list is the ones they chose to exclude. Knowing that DeVos is planning to use her power to divert funds from the public schools (and charter schools too) for vouchers for private schools, perhaps TFA could have asked that she not cut funding to schools. Knowing how much contempt DeVos has shown toward public school teachers, TFA could asked her not to bash teachers so much. Knowing that DeVos has funded reform propaganda sites like Campbell Brown’s The Seventy Four, TFA could have suggested that she spend time in public schools and see what great work is being done.
There’s a lot they could have said to help stave off the at least four year battle everyone in non-charter schools is going to have to fight daily. Instead they padded their valid concerns about discrimination with a bunch of reform code.
Of their nine policies that TFA is urging DeVos to consider (three of the eleven are basically saying, make schools safe for all students), six of them are things that she was already on board with. It’s the TFA way of saying “We are already in agreement with you on most things so you can trust us and work with us to help you out in general.” They seem to care more about their own survival and the continuation of Duncan’s reform strategies than they do about the potential damage that the Trump / DeVos duo can wreak on the children of this country.