Monday Reading List: Betsy DeVos's 1st 100 Days Riles the Left-Right Divide in Education

The reporting team at The Hechinger Report looked at Betsy DeVos's first 100 days as United States Secretary of Education. Emmanuel Felton identifies a point of tension at the core of her agenda:

Many in conservative circles see her primary role as using the bully pulpit to advance school choice policies, but government-backed school vouchers for private schools, which is something she’s vigorously supported for decades, have really taken a beating recently. Study after study have shown that students at private schools using vouchers do no better and sometimes even worse than similar peers who remain in public schools. That helped anti-voucher lawmakers in Tennessee scuttle a voucher push there. After proposing bills each of the last seven years, pro-voucher lawmakers in that state thought that this would be their year. Lawmakers have instead promised to study how to best hold these private schools accountable and come back with a new bill next year. And that’s a state where Republicans control all branches of government. That underscores just how murky the path forward is for her policy agenda.

DeVos has made significant changes to higher education policy without Congress. Making a large new federal investment in vouchers would require an act of the legislature, though, which is unlikely. As such, DeVos is looking to carve out dollars from existing federal programs to incentivize states and districts to use their resources to support vouchers.

In an interview with Chalkbeat's Matt Barnum, the head of Democrats for Education Reform - Shavar Jeffries - calls DeVos's voucher obsession a "sideshow," while pointing out that his organization supports accountable public charter schools:

It’s not a slippery slope to support public schools that are accountable to the public, that have to comply with the same civil rights law, the same accountability standard, that have to be transparent in terms of their finances, that are non-profit, so there’s not any profit motive, there’s not any distribution of any margins to investors — but to bring innovation to public education ... We’ve seen in other domains — in the healthcare space, we see that public healthcare benefits leverage both hospitals and doctors who are run by governmental bureaucracies as well as nonprofit hospitals, as well as doctors who work for nonprofits. Same in the housing space — you have public housing run by governmental bureaucracies and then you also have nonprofit community development corporations that provide housing. To us it’s the same sort of model. We don’t see any slippery slope at all because they’re held accountable to the same rules, the same standards, the same kind of values that motivate public investment.

Read the whole interview, because Jeffries outlines a compelling case for what belongs in a progressive education reform agenda, and what does not. Vouchers enjoy minimal support within his coalition, and they don't seem to work, so he justifiably can't throw his chips in with that agenda. He also discusses the friction between the political left and right in the education reform coalition. In the last couple of years, that friction has felt irreconcilable.

Derrell Bradford, writing at The 74, thinks that folks need to put on their big kid pants and push past the tension:

A retreat from the political realities of what it takes to make change — real change, not just the kind that makes partisans happy, but the kind that actually alters culture in a way that unmakes what is broken so something better can be created — isn’t just selfish, it’s self-interested. And it ignores the most important of factors: that change of this kind, and of this scale, can’t be done alone. We don’t need new edges; we need a new center. So consider this: If your partisan values are more important to you than your education reform values, perhaps you should ask yourself if you are in the right place, at the right time, doing the thing that is best for you and your beliefs. I happen to be an ed reformer first — my moral and professional compasses point in the same direction, and I act in a fashion that is aligned around changing policy for kids. This is also to say I am a Democrat second, and being one informs my view on reform — particularly on issues of equity — but is in service to that view.

Bradford reaches back into the history of Civil Rights and reminds us that social change often requires partnership among uncomfortable bedfellows. That said, social change also requires political champions and organized power. The left-leaning political leaders who have championed reform causes - whether President Barack Obama or Senator Cory Booker or the late Ted Kennedy - have been Democrats first and education reformers second. As Jeffries points out in the earlier interview, EVEN reform-y Democrats do not support the agenda that DeVos is pushing, so there's little reason to pursue a bipartisan coalition at the federal level right now. As the say, "It takes all kinds," and sometimes politicians have to do politics.

Finally today, Anemona Hartocollis, writing in The New York Times, looks at connecting rural students with elite colleges:

Most low-income students rely on their parents for college advice, and many of them end up going to colleges that are less rigorous than they can handle, the research shows. Her organization, the College Advising Corps, places recent graduates in public high schools for two-year stints as full-time college advisers, where they make up for a widespread scarcity of college counselors and bring their own recent experience to bear on the college application process ... Some critics say that these efforts are too focused on transforming the lives of the most brilliant tier of low-income students. What about the students who are merely competent? Others say that steering all the smart teenagers to a few elite colleges may be good for those particular students, but may worsen the social and economic stratification of American society — there will be no more small-town philosopher-car mechanics.

I do not understand this criticism. Of the myriad problems facing our country, I'm not sure that the shortage of philosopher-car mechanics appears on the list of the top billion.

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On a more serious note, if someone wants to be a car mechanic, s/he should become a car mechanic. But the institutional barriers to pursuing that sort of career either live outside of the formal education system, or are solved by making local investments in career education. If someone wants to be a philosopher, he or she needs access to the elite corners of higher education, and there are massive financial, cultural, and institutional barriers to that endeavor. In other words, when there are too many elite philosophers from rural America, and too few auto mechanics in those towns, I will gladly weep. Until then ... have a great day.