PHOTOGRAPH BY DREW ANGERER / GETTY
“…How might DeVos seek to transform the educational landscape of the United States in her position at the head of a department that has a role in overseeing the schooling of more than fifty million American children? As it happens, she does have a long track record in the field. Since the early nineteen-nineties, she and her husband, Dick DeVos, have been very active in supporting the charter-school movement. They worked to pass Michigan’s first charter-school bill, in 1993, which opened the door in their state for public money to be funneled to quasi-independent educational institutions, sometimes targeted toward specific demographic groups, which operate outside of the strictures that govern more traditional public schools. (Dick DeVos, a keen pilot, founded one of his own: the West Michigan Aviation Academy, located at Gerald Ford International Airport, which serves an overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male population of students.)
As a board member of Children First America and the American Education Reform Council, and later as the chair of the American Federation for Children, DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos expressed her ultimate goals in education reform, which she said she saw encompassing not just charter schools and voucher programs but also homeschooling and virtual education: “That all parents, regardless of their zip code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children. And that all students have had the best opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.”
One can fully credit DeVos’s commitment to her cause—one might even term it her crusade—while also seeking to evaluate its effectiveness. How have such DeVos-sponsored initiatives played out thus far in her home state? Earlier this year, the Detroit Free Press published the results of a yearlong investigation into the state’s two-decade-long charter-school initiative—one of the least regulated in the country. Almost two-thirds of the state’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities. This lack of transparency has not translated into stellar academic results: student standardized-test scores at charter schools, the paper found, were no more than comparable with those at traditional public schools. And, despite the rhetoric of “choice,” lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while the parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system. Even Tom Watkins, the state’s former education superintendent, who favors charter schools, told the newspaper, “In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.”
After DeVos’s nomination, the editorial-page editor of the Free Press, Stephen Henderson—whose own children attend a high-performing charter school—wrote a searing indictment of Detroit’s experiment. “This deeply dysfunctional education landscape—where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ‘choice’ means the opposite for tens of thousands of children—is no accident,” he wrote. “It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.” DeVos was at the center of that lobby; her lodestar, Henderson wrote, “has been her conviction that any nontraditional public school is better than a traditional one, simply because it is not operated by government.”
As the Republican nominee, Trump campaigned on a platform of educational reform, proposing to assign twenty billion dollars of federal funds to a block grant aimed at opening up school choice. The assumption is that productive competition between schools will result. “Competition always does it,” Trump said in September, as if he were speaking about air-conditioner factories rather than academic institutions. “The weak fall out and the strong get better. It is an amazing thing.”
DeVos has yet to say much about specific actions she might seek to take as Education Secretary. In a Q. & A. published on her personal Web site—which pictures DeVos and her husband, casually but impeccably dressed, sitting on a porch swing, clasping hands—she declines to give details of her ideas, out of deference to the U.S. Senate, which is required to confirm her appointment. (She does, however, remind readers that she is “a total outsider to elective office and government.”) But through her past actions, and her previously published statements, it is clear that DeVos, like the President-elect who has chosen her, is comfortable applying the logic of the marketplace to schoolyard precincts. She has repeatedly questioned the value of those very precincts’ physical existence: in the Philanthropy interview, DeVos remarked that, “in the Internet age, the tendency to equate ‘education’ with ‘specific school buildings’ is going to be greatly diminished.”
Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment. If, in recent years, a principal focus of federal educational policy has been upon academic standards in public education—how to measure success, and what to do with the results—DeVos’s nomination suggests that in a Trump Administration the more fundamental premises that underlie our institutions of public education will be brought into question. In one interview, recently highlighted by Diane Ravitch on her blog, DeVos spoke in favor of “charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination, or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.” A preëmptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.
The above has been excerpted from The New Yorker Magazine, written by Rebecca Mead and published on December 14, 2016. Press here to read the entire article.