‘School Choice Is Not Serving The Most Disenfranchised’
Above Photo: Kevin Kumashiro: “If we’re now saying that the role of the federal government is not to advance issues of equity, diversity and social justice, but rather to fuel the privatizing and the dismantling of public education, then that absolutely is a big shift.” (photo: Center for Anti-Oppressive Education)
Janine Jackson: There were near-countless causes for concern about the appointment of deep-pocketed Republican Betsy DeVos as secretary of Education. She’s given money to 17 of the senators voting on her. She’s never taught or had her children in public school. She seemed to know little about core educational issues, like the debate over measuring students’ proficiency versus their growth, or whether or not the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act is a federal law. In the end, her line about needing guns in schools for grizzly bears might be the least worrisome thing about her. Yet here we are.
It’s been said that the Education secretary has less day-to-day power than other agency heads. But what does the DeVos appointment represent in terms of this administration’s potential impact on children and schools, and how do we fight for a different vision? Kevin Kumashiro is the former dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, and founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity. He’s the author of the book Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. He joins us now by phone from California. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Kevin Kumashiro.
Kevin Kumashiro: Janine, thanks so much for having me.
JJ: I think it’s fair to raise concern about DeVos’s lack of classroom experience, but I can imagine someone who has never taught who nevertheless understood what teachers do. As with other Trump appointments, it seems like it’s not a matter of DeVos not being the “best” person; the problem is she represents a position that’s opposed to the mission of the department. Is that fair to say, do you think?
KK: I think that’s very fair to say. I mean, I think in so many instances, having outsider perspectives can be very helpful, so I agree it’s not about whether or not she herself has taught, although that would be very helpful if she had. It’s more about what is her vision for public education, and what is her track record that shows what she’s already done and where she’s likely to take public education.
And the Department of Education was created in a time when the federal government was leveraging the little money that it has in public education—well, little in terms of the percentage, right? The federal government accounts for only about 10 percent of public school funding. But, you know, it’s a $600 billion-a-year enterprise nationally. There’s lots of money to be made in public education.
So the federal government for several decades, from the ’50s through the ’80s, was actually exerting more and more influence, to try to make public schools address diversity, equity and injustices. That was the hallmark of the string of legislation that came through the federal government that culminated, in 1979, in the creation of the Department of Education.
So if we’re now saying that the role of the federal government is not to advance issues of equity, diversity and social justice, but rather to fuel the privatizing and the dismantling of public education, then that absolutely is a big shift from historically where it’s been going, and a big shift from what should be its primary role in schooling.
JJ: Well, yes, having people in charge of agencies that they don’t think should exist is a special kind of confusing, including for people who have to report on it. But what we get are sort of arguments about ideas and then a lot of buzzwords, and “school choice,” like “accountability,” is a great buzzword. And taking off from what you’ve just been saying about the original intent of the whole department, school choice is being presented as, in particular, a way for students of color and poor kids to access the great equalizer that is education. You know, wealthy kids presumably already have school choice. I find the cynicism of Betsy DeVos professing to care about poor black and brown children almost unbearable. But, first of all, no one says some charter schools haven’t helped some kids, right? But we have data here, and if it’s kids that we care about, those data just don’t support a shift of resources away from public schools.
KK: Oh, absolutely. When we talk about the track record of Betsy DeVos, we should look at Michigan, because it’s in Michigan where she leveraged millions of dollars to rapidly expand the creation of charter schools, at the same time that she pushed for legislation that would deregulate, in other words that would lessen the oversight of charter schools. And particularly in Detroit, this is what we saw, right, a proliferation of charter schools with far less oversight.
And are we seeing the gaps in achievement and attainment being closed? Well, absolutely not. Even proponents of school choice are saying that the very expensive experiment in ‘School Choice Is Not Serving The Most Disenfranchised’ | PopularResistance.Org: