Friday, May 12, 2017

Betsy Gets A Voucher: School choice? Let's try good choices, Secretary DeVos

School choice? Let's try good choices, Secretary DeVos:

School choice, Secretary DeVos? Let's try good choices

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When graduating students at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida booed U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos earlier this week, she seemed genuinely dismayed, asking students to listen to her as they hoped she'd listen to them, urging them to strive for a "mind-set of grace."
DeVos' commencement speech at the historically black university was controversial from the outset. A few months back, DeVos had lauded historically black colleges and universities as "pioneers of school choice," a really wacky way of looking at institutions formed in response to discrimination. 
She later apologized, but that's the kind of disconnect that has characterized DeVos' tenure in education. And that's the kind of disconnect that blinds DeVos to the idea that Bethune graduates might boo, or turn their backs on her, precisely because they'd listened to her message.
DeVos' ostensible qualifications to lead the U.S. Department of Education arise from her long advocacy for school choice, a lobby that, here in Michigan, she and members of her family largely created and funded. DeVos seems to genuinely believe that school choice is a boon for kids trapped in failing, urban school districts, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. While charter schools deliver marginally better, albeit uneven, results than traditional public schools, the promise behind the creation of charter schools was that they'd offer tremendously better choices. They haven't. 
And DeVos' munificence has its limits. Her long advocacy for school vouchers, for example, is aimed at funneling tax dollars to private or parochial schools; the charter schools she has backed proliferate and operate largely free of consequence for abysmal outcomes, and the schools-of-choice programs her supporters embrace have too often shuffled students from one low-performing school to another.
Traditional public schools — “government-run,” in DeVos’ parlance — haven't been subject to the same policy focus as charters, or enjoyed as much no-strings public funding.
During her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing, DeVos conceded only that she wouldn't work to dismantle traditional public schools; support didn't enter the equation. And nowhere in her deep-pocketed history as a campaign donor has DeVos worked to shape policy that would improve traditional public schools.  
And that, you have to think, is not lost on students at a historically black college or university. 
African Americans won equal access to the nation's public schools only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954  that barring black kids from public schools they'd helped pay for wasn't constitutional. Still, it took the U.S. National Guard to enforce integration, cuing a white exodus from any school that enrolled a significant number of black kids — as in metro Detroit, where city schools are almost exclusively black, and suburban schools are almost exclusively white.
An analysis undertaken last year by Bridge Magazine found that when black kids enroll in suburban, predominantly white schools via the state's schools-of-choice program, which allows kids to school-hop across district boundaries, white kids leave, using the same program to travel to whiter districts nearby.
Strong public schools, offering sound education to every American, regardless of race, creed or color, should be the cornerstone of American democracy. When they're failing, we should shore them up — and if we offer alternatives, like charters or schools of choice — results should be better. 
The kinds of school-choice options DeVos has made a career of embracing don’t help the traditional public schools that educate most Americans, the same schools African Americans fought and bled to access. It's a never-ending game of educational keep-away, where the best education is always just out of reach for some Americans. 
There are choices, and then there are good choices — ones that led to superior outcomes. Which sort is DeVos peddling? I'm pretty sure any Bethune graduate could tell you. 
Contact Nancy Kaffer: nkaffer@freepress.com

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