Betsy DeVos, Polly Williams, Vouchers, And Selective Facts
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos kicked off her back to school tour at the Saint Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee a few weeks ago. This piece ran back then at Forbes, and I don't repost everything from there, but we've developed such goldfish memories under this administration, I'm going to trot this one out again here. Because we need to remember what the threat to public education is.
The choice of location itself sent a message about what DeVos means by “freedom.” The school’s mission is “to disciple children for Christ, now and for all eternity, and to train them in excellence for their roles in their family, church, community, workplace and country,” and it is a longtime beneficiary of Wisconsin’s voucher program. Its core values are “Christ First, Biblical Discipleship, Sacrificial Love, and Radical Expectations.” It is not particularly unusual to find that a voucher-supported school is using public tax dollars in a private religious setting; in most voucher programs, the vast majority of taxpayers’ money is directed to religious schools.
It’s not surprising that DeVos would support this. Years ago, she and her husband were clear that their hope for education was for “kingdom gain” and a return to the days when the church, and not the public school, was the center of the community.
Her speech on Monday is supportive of that vision, even as it elides some inconvenient facts.
Portions of the speech are simply allegations. She says that “too many students can’t read,” and she blames that on “the education cabal.” She discusses the average amount of money spent on students, but talking about averages in education finance is not very useful. As mathematician Ian Stewart observed, the average person has one breast and one testicle. The difference between per student spending in the richest and poorest districts in this country amounts to tens of thousands of dollars, and that gap is behind many of the educational issues in the U.S. Developing education policy based on average spending is as ineffective as permanently turning on the air conditioning in your home because the average annual temperature is 72.
DeVos says that administrative costs are eating up the money that should be spent on students, but school choice has not provided much of a solution to that problem. Research suggests that A) charters spend more on administrative costs than public schools and B) it may not matter.
DeVos also chose to invoke Annette “Polly” Williams, the mother of school choice in Wisconsin. The Democratic politician and activist wrote the first school choice legislation in the country (adopted in 1989) and became a popular speaker on the issue, particularly to conservative audiences.
But Williams became disenchanted with the school choice movement. Her original legislation did not include religious schools, but was expanded to do so five years later. Williams took to calling the voucher program a “Catholic movement.” She expressed displeasure with some of the folks, like Lamar Alexander and Bill Bennett, who swooped in to speak. She accused leaders of exploiting black and poor families, and of leaving poor families behind with the program expansion. 75% of voucher recipients were not escaping the public system, because they had never been in it. She was critical of education measures taken by Governor Scott Walker, whose supporters have included the DeVos family.
Williams told an interviewer, “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools.” When accused of drifting away from the movement, she would reply, “I haven’t changed. The people around me have changed.”
It’s an odd choice for DeVos to invoke Williams, who seems to have viewed folks like DeVos as having hijacked the charter movement. But DeVos seems determined to launch, or at least lay a foundation for, a national voucher program, and she’s going to paint a favorable picture with whatever brush she has handy.