During the recent House hearings, Betsy DeVos was confronted with some of the results of the Network for Public Education study of federal dollars going to charters, a huge number of which have closed or never even opened. She was unmoved:
Let me first comment on the study you’re referring to. I’m not sure you can even call it a study. We’re looking more closely at it of course, and anything that is truly waste, fraud, or abuse we will certainly address. But the reality is that the study was really funded by and promoted by those who have a political agenda against charter schools. And the other reality is that there are currently over one million students on wait lists for charter schools in the country. So, we want to see more charter schools, not fewer. More students that can access options that are right for them, not fewer.
wrote an open letter to DeVos further detailing some of the fraud and waste. Here's a collection of 109 charters in Michigan that took federal grant money and closed, or never opened at all. They amount to over $20 million in federal money that is simply gone with nothing to show for it (remember, this is only looking at the charter grants issued by the Department of Education-- if we start looking at all charters funded through various state and philanthropic money, the list gets much longer). Ohio, California and Louisiana are other bad examples. Ohio flushed away over $35 million-- 40% of the federally funded charters failed.
None of this is likely to matter to DeVos. Like many free market true believers in the reformster world, she is going to view the closing and churning of charters as a feature, not a bug. This is how the market they envision is supposed to work-- schools are opened, some thrive, some fail, the failed ones close to be replaced by some other enterprising entrepreneur. It is, I think, one of the great ironies of hard right conservative Christians like DeVos-- on the one hand, they reject the notion of biological evolution, but on the other hand, they absolutely believe in survival of the fittest. Propping up a failing business goes against the law of nature.
That's why the hearings also included an exchange with Senator Jack Reed about infrastructure. He points out that there are school buildings that need to be rescued and updated and mentions his plan to invest 100 billion in infrastructure, to which DeVos replies:
Well I think it’s an interesting proposal. A very costly one at that. I think what I would actually advocate for is giving more students and more parents more freedom and choices to find the right fit for their child’s education. I think we are going to make more progress and have more gains in student achievement if students are able to find schools and education environments that work specifically for them.
Don't bail out the struggling public schools. Let them fail. Betsy "Public education is a dead end" DevVos has certainly tipped her hand before, and Valerie Strauss picks out what might be the critical quote of the hearing:
“We need traditional public schools to be held to the same accountability standards" as charter schools.
Which pairs up with this another response to the NPE report:
When you have experimentation you are always going to have schools that don’t make it and that is exactly as what should happen. They should close. And let’s also look at how many traditional public schools have closed because they are not doing well for their students.
I don't think DeVos is attempting a "Nanny nanny boo boo-- public schools close a bunch, too." Because very few public schools close compared to charters, and I think she knows that. I think her point is, "Very few public schools close and that's further proof that they're bad and wrong." When she says public schools should be held to the same accountability standard, she means that public schools should be subject to Death By Foot-based Voting. All parents should be able to walk away from a public school and take their money with them. That's her premise and her message; the unstated assumption is that right-thinking Godly parents will beat feet out of public school faster than an Amway rep racing a Mormon missionary to your front door.
It's also worth noting that this all fits with the idea of a portfolio approach, that latest growing-in-reformster-popularity governance model being pushed by the City Group. Under a portfolio model, charters and public schools are lumped together in a group that operates charter-style, with features like a universal application that lets the system sort out the students. The portfolio is supposed to churn, just as you would regular add and remove investments from your financial portfolio depending on their performance. Schools, both charter and public, would be shut down, opened up, transferred to new management, and otherwise churned. That churn could be based on "performance" indicators like test scores, but it could also be based on market share-- how many feet vote for or against.
This is one of the area where choicers have a fundamental disagreement with public education advocates. For public schools, stability is a basic foundational value. The school is a community institution, and like all institutions, part of its values comes from its continuity, its connections to tradition, the past. It means something to people to see their children and neighbors all passing through the same halls, having the same teachers, being part of a community collective that stretches across the years. For free market Reformsters, anything that gets in the way of their idea of free market mechanics is bad; there should be winners and losers and the market should judge their worth, ruthlessly culling the weak and undeserving.
Reformsters know they have a hard sell. That's why they don't try to use this as a selling point ("Don't forget-- the school your child chooses could close at any time due to market consitions! Isn't that awesome!") That's why they are adamant about calling charters "public" schools-- because it lulls the customers into believing that charters share some of the fundamental characteristics of public schools, like stability and longevity. They (e.g. Governor DeSantis of Florida) also want to hold onto "public" because the change to privately owned and operated market based schools is the end of public education as we know it; it truly is privatization, and almost nobody pushing these policies has the guts to publicly say, "I propose that we end public education and replace it with privately owned and operated businesses, some of which will reserve the right to refuse service to some of you, and all of which may not last long enough to see your child from K through 12."
The person who almost has the guts to almost say this is, ironically, Betsy DeVos-- the person charged with taking care of the public system that she would like to kill. What a wacky world we live in. So don't expect her to be moved by all the waste of tax dollars paying for failed or fraudulent charter schools; every time a charter school closes, a free market reformster gets their wings, and Betsy is a-fixin' to fly.