What Betsy DeVos’s Emphasis on ‘Choice’ Means for School Segregation The education secretary’s policies stand to make divisions in our schools and neighborhoods worse, not better.
When questioned on her commitment to principles of diversity and equality in public education, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos keeps repeating one conservative mantra: “choice.”
When pressed during her confirmation process on school desegregation policies, her coy answer—“I do not support programs that would lead to increased segregation”—was laced again with that market-friendly code word: “Empirical evidence finds school choice programs lead to more integrated schools than their public school counterparts.”
The concept of “school choice,” which emphasizes individual family preferences in how students and funding are distributed, squares neatly with the neoliberal reform agenda of pushing public education into the realm of private business. Who could oppose self-determination for parents, after all? But in a “free market” built on an unjust system, not all choices are created equal.
Yet that seems to be DeVos’s vision of “diversity.” Her abrupt decision to cancel an Obama administration program designed to help communities desegregate schools, known as Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunity, has outraged education advocates, who fear Trump will aggravate social barriers in K–12 education. The program was relatively small-scale—just $12 million in seed grants issued to school districts across the country seeking to develop “locally driven strategies to increase socioeconomic diversity in schools.” The grants would barely dent the system-wide civil-rights crisis of school segregation, but DeVos claimed even this fledgling program was unworthy of taxpayer dollars because it was focused on planning and not “implementation,” TheWashington Post reports.
Advocates say the cuts mark a setback for creative school-diversity programs that are trying to uphold the constitutional precepts established in Brown v. Board of Education, the precedent that commits the government to correcting institutionalized racial barriers in education by proactively desegregating schools.
DeVos argues the private sector should be trusted to help schools redistribute opportunity, by expanding corporate charter schools and giving families vouchers to finance private schooling, as a supposedly higher-quality alternative to neighborhood schools. But often, these programs end up slowing or reversing desegregation for the families who most need it.