The DeVos Brand of Public School Reform: Unregulated, Profitable, Voucher-Oriented, Meets Resistance in Ohio
Since Betsy DeVos was tapped to be Secretary of Education, I’ve managed to pen close to 20,000 words about her. And now here she was, standing so close to me that I could make out the flat a’s of western Michigan in her voice.
I’d made my way to tiny Van Wert, OH (pop. 10,718) so that I could be part of the long-awaited joint appearance by DeVos and American Federation of teachers President Randi Weingarten. The teachers of Van Wert belong to the Van Wert Federation of Teachers, which is part of the AFT. Randi and DeVos agreed to visit a school together after DeVos was confirmed; Randi proposed Van Wert at the urging of the teachers there. (The Ohio Federation of Teachers has 20,000 members, predominantly teachers. The Ohio Education Association has 124,000 members.)
I was expecting little in the way of drama; school visits are highly orchestrated affairs. It was dissonance I was after. DeVos’ brand of school reform—unregulated, profitable, hyper-partisan—has resistance here that extends well beyond the small group of protesters who’d gathered in the parking lot.
I’d caught up with the tour in time for what was intended to be the high point: a robotics showcase featuring students from 5th grade on up doing cool STEM-ish stuff—that buzzword for science and math. Members of the high school robotics team showed off their prize-winning creation, something that looked to this untrained eye, like an exercise ball with a bomb attached. Students who’d competed in the Believe in Ohio innovation competition were eager to demonstrate their inventions. A sophomore who’d come up with a screwdriver that never strips screws walked me through his design process, mentioning in passing that Believe in Ohio is being scaled back due to state budget cuts. I lurked around as DeVos talked to a group of tweens who were showing off mechanical drawings they’d designed. *We need to recruit more young ladies into STEM fields,* she told them. Here it was already: dissonance; her boss’ budget hacks away at STEM education.
Back to the future
Van Wert’s schools occupy an immense windswept field on the far edge of town. The distance between the high school and the elementary school is great enough to justify riding between them in an SUV with marshal escorts. We were done with the future; now it was onto the past. The tour’s next stop was the fifth grade classroom of Nate Hoverman, a Van Wert grad, whose students have spent weeks working on a project-based learning unit about how kids experienced the Great Depression. On this day, the students were reading an excerpt from Russell Freedman’s Children of the Great Depression about how the economic crisis crippled schools across the country.
Out of work and out of money, people couldn’t pay the taxes that paid for their schools. Schools closed down or shortened their school years and teachers everywhere were laid off, which meant huge classes for the students who still had schools to go to. In Chicago, teachers, who hadn’t been paid for months, joined with parents and students and marched on the city’s banks, demanding that the bankers loan the city enough money to pay their salaries. When some of the teachers occupied the banks, the cops moved in. Freedman cites a newspaper report: *In a moment, unpaid policemen were cracking their clubs against the heads of unpaid school teachers.*
The timing of the reading was a coincidence, Hoverman told me. The students had started the unit reading the acclaimed novel Bud, Not Buddy, about an orphan making his way in Flint, MI in 1936, but they wanted to know more about the *why* behind the story. Still, it would be hard to conjure up a more fitting frame for our present precipice. For DeVos and her peeps, this was the period of American history when the nation went pear-shaped, the government using its might on behalf of working people like it never had before. The regulatory state was born, the unions were newly powerful, and those students who marched through the streets of Chicago with their teachers grew up to become Democrats with a deep distrust of the free market.
Both DeVos’ own family and the one she married into were part of the business-led crusade to roll back the New Deal’s accomplishments that began practically as soon as the New Deal did. Seven decades later, the fever dream of low taxes, little regulation and shriveled public services may finally be at hand.
The divide between Weingarten vs. DeVos is about more than just unions or vouchers, school funding or learning options. It’s about whether the state should protect us from the excesses of the free market. DeVos’ answer to this is an emphatic *not.* It’s why her Education Department moved so quickly to roll back protections for student loan borrowers. And it’s why she holds up as a model a Florida voucher program that strips parents, or *buyers,* of the rights and protections that the public system guarantees.
In Ohio, the move is on to move students out of the public schools that the chair of the House Education Committee has derided as *socialist,* and into privately-run alternatives, especially religious schools. A proposal to expand Ohio’s existing voucher programs to include middle class students is aimed squarely at the likes of Van Wert. This part of the state is heavily Catholic; subsidizing parents who send their kids to private schools already and incentivizing other parents to join them will only accelerate the defunding of the public schools. Matt Huffman, the state senator who introduced the voucher bill is from nearby Lima, describes himself as a *private school person.* Religious schools, he says, are better at producing respectful, rule-abiding kids—like this student, who was earning A’s at the local public school but didn’t start treating his mother right till he began attending Catholic school. *He was being told how to act everyday,* says Huffman.
Senator Huffman’s other pet cause is lowering the wages of construction workers, a passion he shares with the DeVos family in Michigan. If you’re having trouble figuring out what the connection is between school vouchers and eliminating the prevailing wage for workers who build and maintain the public infrastructure, I recommend that you check out Gordon Lafer’s brand new book, The One Percent Solution (Cornell University Press, 2017). Lafer, an economist, has done the first 50 state overview of all of the bills passed at the behest of the corporate lobby—especially the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC—since the Great Recession. It’s in the places where Republicans swept all three branches of government in the 2010 wave election, eleven states including Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana, where the patterns are most pronounced. To distill Lafer’s findings down to a single, grim sentence: in state after state, the corporate lobby has set out to lower the standard of living while chipping away at the democratic institutions through which citizens can do anything about it.
Public education is an obvious and enormous target. There isn’t any way for the corporate coalition to realize its ambitious agenda of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy and shrinking government without savaging what is the biggest ticket item in nearly every state. But diminishing the expectations of what Americans are entitled to is the real goal here, Lafer argues; the deeply held belief that their children have a right to a decent education represents the last substantive right that Americans think they’re entitled to. The corporate lobby and their allies in government think it’s time we all moved on, writes Lafer. *They aim to dissolve both the institution of education as a public good and the very idea of education as an entitlement of citizens that the government is responsible for providing.*
Consider, for example, the astonishing rise of Ohio’s for-profit virtual schools. A measurable failure by the metrics that are supposed to matter, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the Ohio Virtual Academy, run by K12 Inc, have succeeded beyond measure in hoovering up public dollars. Last year alone, taxpayers sent more than $260 million to online schools, funds that get plowed back into the virtual schools’ constant campaign—for more money, more students, and less oversight. And they’ve found eager enablers among Ohio’s elected officials, who are awash in campaign cash from charter industry magnates like ECOT’s William Lager and White Hat’s David Brennan. The judge hearing a case on whether ECOT must return some $60 million to the state for students who never showed up to their virtual classes compared Lager and Brennan to Russian oligarchs. Here we call them *influential donors,* Gary Tyack observed during a recent hearing.
On my way to Van Wert, I’d stopped in Elida, a village 35 miles southeast, to meet with local school officials who are leading a lonely crusade to force state officials to crack down on waste and fraud in the charter sector. For several years now, school board members here have been invoicing the state for the amount the village has sent to charter schools, which perform far less well than the community’s own schools. It’s the abuse of taxpayer money by the virtual schools that most incenses officials like Elida Local Schools treasurer Joel Parker and school board member Brenda Stocker.
Parker, a Trump supporter, likens the growth of Ohio’s virtual schools, with their moneyed bosses and political flunkies, to the takeover of the garbage collection industry by organized crime in the ‘50’s. *The mob got into the business because it was easy, they could control it, and they could basically scare the people who tried to do anything about it.* The analogy is surprisingly apt. The mob moved into trash, not because of any particular affinity with garbage, but because cities were privatizing garbage collection. Plus, it was legal, and profitable public contracts combined with a lack of oversight from state and local officials meant that opportunities for what we might call innovative resource extraction abounded. Parker’s fear is that the big money and political sway of the charter industry magnates has enabled them to effectively *capture* the very agencies and officials who are supposed to be keeping an eye on them. State Auditor Dave Yost, who is running for Attorney General, has received campaign cash from ECOT’s CEO, and spoke at ECOT graduations in 2014 and 2015. *He’s never spoken at one of our graduations,* says Parker.
What was so powerful about the Van Wert spectacle was the palpable conviction that if DeVos just saw great public education for herself then her mind might be changed about its relative worth. You could hear it in the words of the administrators and the local union president, and you could see it in faces of the teachers who came out of their classrooms to greet DeVos and pose for selfies with her. And DeVos did seem impressed by what she observed. Van Wert is unusual for a rural community in that it has had not just one but two wealthy patrons who’ve opted to invest in the local children. First among them was George Marsh, who struck it rich in the wooden barrel business in the 19th century and, at the urging of Mrs. Marsh, gave most of it to the poor children of Van Wert. The soaring, state-of-the art Performing Arts Center where DeVos and Weingarten held their press conference likewise owes its existence to a generous benefactor: a ‘65 Van Wert High grad who made a fortune in trucking.
To DeVos, the visible presence of the *job creators* and *job providers* in the Van Wert schools was proof that they had to be doing something right. She was more careful this time when she described what was holding the teachers back: regulations and something she referred to vaguely as *government paperwork.* But the more she talked, the worse things sounded for the Van Wert. On the one hand, parents wouldn’t feel the need to seek out choices if the needs of their individual children were being met, and yet unless you gave parents choices they couldn’t seek them out.
Famously not a numbers person, DeVos was quick to point out that 20% of Van Wert’s youngsters already opt out of the city’s schools. And while she’d seemed disengaged, and occasionally bored, during her tour of Van Wert’s classrooms, she was at her most animated when discussing the urgent need to provide parents with the option to go elsewhere. She shouted out, once again, to virtual schools as a worthy choice, the equivalent in Ohio these days of commending Wells Fargo for its customer service or Navient for its student borrower advocacy. When a reporter asked her if there was anything she planned to change in her approach as a result of what she’d seen in Van Wert, DeVos couldn’t think of a single thing.
It was Randi Weingarten’s line about Van Wert proving that support for public schools transcends partisan politics that really stuck with me, though. I’d spent my entire day surrounded by Ohioans who’d enthusiastically sent Donald Trump to the White House, and yet their opposition to seeing their schools dismantled was as strong as the progressive public education advocates that I run with. If I’d written Weingarten’s remarks, I would have thrown in a mention of the *common schools* that are enshrined in Ohio’s Constitution, in the same section that explicitly prohibits the use of taxpayer money for religious schools. Isn’t a school that binds a community together regardless of politics or religion the definition of a common school after all?
I put this question to education activist Brianne Kramer when we met up later that afternoon. Kramer, who grew up north of here, in Napoleon, worked at Ohio Virtual Academy as a high school counselor and now teaches at Ohio Norther University, where she helps prepare future teachers for careers in places like Van Wert. She answered without missing a beat.
*They don’t believe in the idea of common schools because they don’t believe in the common good,* said Kramer.
Kramer and I were meeting for the first time. A friend of hers from the Bad Ass Teachers Association had alerted her that I was heading to this corner of Ohio, and here we were 36 hours later, discussing the future of public education in the Buckeye State over biscuits and broasted chicken (a thing!) at a Bob Evans. Kramer has become something of an expert on the influence of ALEC in Ohio. Last year, she testified before the Senate Finance Committee in favor of a bill that would have subjected the state’s notoriously awful virtual schools to more oversight. Her testimony is well worth watching, but make sure you stick around for the Q and A portion, when Senator Bill Coley, ALEC’s Ohio state chairman and a veritable ambassador for ECOT, interrogates Kramer and makes the case for why virtual schooling is the best kind of schooling. The bill never made it out of committee.
I needed Kramer to help me understand the endgame for public education in a state like Ohio. Her vision was bleak enough to make me wish that Bob Evans served alcohol. She thinks that the controversial plan to blow up the Youngstown schools, hatched with charter school lobbyists and Catholic school groups, and passed under cover of darkness in 2015, is likely a model for how the GOP plans to break up and sell off other school districts throughout the state. It sounds conspiratorial until you consider that the chair of the House Education Committee has called for doing just that: *sell[ing] off the existing buildings, equipment and real estate to those in the private sector.*
Kramer says that she can envision a not-so-distant future in which online schools will be the only option for Ohio’s low-income students; anyone with the means will attend private and religious schools. *The people pushing this agenda don’t want a common good where everyone has a fair chance. A common good requires that you give citizens the tools they need to operate within the framework of democracy,* Kramer told me. *Everything that’s happening in Ohio is aimed at undermining that notion.*
The only good news is that Trump supporters seem as unhappy about that as do public education advocates.
(Thanks to everyone who chipped in and sent me to the Buckeye State on a moment’s notice. More travel ahead. I’m headed back to Michigan next month, and am hoping to get to Indiana later this summer.)