Diane Ravitch: Betsy DeVos Is a Monster the Democrats Helped Create

$9.2 billion—that's the amount the Trump administration plans to slice from the Department of Education, according to its latest budget proposal. The carnage includes deep cuts to teacher training, mental health, school arts, anti-bullying initiatives and countless other services, as well as the elimination of Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which affects as many as 400,000 college graduates. 

Manning the guillotine is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has emerged as one of the Trump administration's most reviled figures among Democrats; all 48 senators voted against her confirmation in February. What few are willing to acknowledge, however, is that their party's embrace of the education reform movement helped make DeVos' political career possible. Indeed her proposed voucher system, allowing parents to use public funding for private and religious schools, builds upon a school choice model introduced by Governor Bill Clinton and later championed by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

In an essay for the New Republic, academic and educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch traces how the Democrats went so horribly astray on education, creating the conditions for the disaster now befalling our public schools. In 1994, President Clinton passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which established national achievement standards and provided grants to states that used their own. Seven years later, Senator Ted Kennedy helped George W. Bush enact the No Child Left Behind Act. "For the first time," Ravitch writes, "the government was mandating not only 'accountability' (code for punishing teachers and schools who fall short), but also 'choice' (code for handing low-performing public schools over to charter operators)."

If the education reform movement took root in the Clinton and Bush administrations, it blossomed under Barack Obama, who placed renewed emphasis on testing and accountability. As Ravitch notes, his Race to the Top program held teachers to rigid test scores, doubled the number of students attending charter schools and closed countless public schools that failed to meet national standards. Perhaps most insidious, Democrats adopted "school choice"—a concept rooted in Southern racial panic following the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education—as part of their party platform.

For Ravitch, the reasons for Democrats to abandon charter schools are manifold. Not only is the industry rife with fraud, its executives profiting handsomely from shady real estate deals, but studies indicate charters do not produce higher test scores than public schools. What's more, a wealth of research suggests school choice is actively segregating our children. "Support for charters is paving the way for a dual school system," she writes, "one that is allowed to choose the students it wants, and another that is required to accept all who enroll."

DeVos plans to spend $400 million on existing charter schools and an additional $1 billion to "push public schools to adopt choice-friendly policies," per the Washington Post. But as catastophic as her tenure threatens to be, Ravitch believes it also presents the Democratic Party with a unique opportunity.

"If there’s ever a moment for them to reclaim their mantle as the party of public education, it’s now," she argues. "There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it."

Read Diane Ravitch's piece at the New Republic.

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