James Blew has made a career out of ed reformsterism. He was director of Student Success California, part of the 50CAN reformy network, the Alliance for School Choice, and he served a stint as president of StudentsFirst, the national reform advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee, former DC chancellor and ed reform's Kim Kardashian. He was the director of the Walton family Foundation's K-12 "reform investments" for a decade. His background is, of course, not education, but business, politics and "communications."
In July of 2018, he rounded that career in dismantling public ed by going to work for Betsy DeVos as Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, where he continued that work. As of January of this year, his LinkedIn profile lists him as a Policy Consultant for "various organizations (NGOs, institutes, businesses)--Full-time"
That work includes cranking out pieces for reliably reformy Education Next, and his latest is an attempt to provide an overview of the state of education reform. It's an interesting picture of the view from the planet where he resides, with some fairly stunning jaw droppers along the way. But buckle up--this is worth digging into to better understand where some of these folks are coming from.
Blew characterizes his USED job under DeVos as "translating her reform vision into concrete legislative proposals, budgets, and grant competitions" and says it was a "stimulating, enjoyable job--despite the constant turmoil created by the unconventional president." He'd known "and admired" DeVos for decades, so "none of her positions surprised or disappointed me," which he characterizes as a "risky" statement because "partisans on both sides have distorted her views." There's an awful lot to unpack there (Trump was "unconventional" and Josef Stalin was notoriously "cranky"), but we have far to go.
Blew was "astounded" by opposition to DeVos within the reformster community, and his thesis is that she "unmasked tensions and disagreements" within that world. Sure, healthy in some ways, but he doesn't like how this gave advantage to "defenders of the status quo" (which is of course bunk because at this point, most of the preferred reformsters policies are the status quo).
He doesn't want to stake out a reform "orthodoxy" or to "defend every aspect" of the DeVosian record. He just wants to lay out the fractures within reformsterland so they can avoid being "divided and conquered."
Defining Education Reformers
What common denominators define Blew's conception of reformsters? Well, they think the current ed system needs to be "reformed, transformed, or whatever nomenclature you choose," which is not exactly a precise piece of work. Likewise "We believe the system is failing to educate sufficiently a substantial portion of children," is--well, "sufficiently" and "substantial portion" are doing a lot of work here. But a "large number" of children do not "reach their potential as adults,"
Blew counts himself among the people committed to "equal opportunity" in this country "regardless of class, race, gender, or belief" and that civil rights have been defended "vigorously" over nearly sixty years, which I guess is why DeVos decided to hamstring USED's Office for Civil Rights. Then there's this observation.Some say that our education system is a manifestation of systemic racism. Others, like me, see evidence that our system reinforces racism and might even be a source of it.
Well, no. First, public money is not what makes it a public school. If that were true, we would have a public army and Blew would have worked in a public office and Betsy DeVos would have been defended by public secret service agents. Public ownership and accountability make a public school system. But Blew here is tipping his hand to his focus--public money. I wish he had explained what he means by education being a private good. And "we" is doing huge work here. Up till now, "we" has mostly meant "we reformsters," but I can't think of anyone in the modern reformster community who thinks actually public schools (called "government schools" by people who want to destroy them) are the best system to deliver education (see above explanations of what unites reformsters, including the "despise" part).
Debates over K–12 education often have little or nothing to do with educating our students or preparing them for good jobs. Public schools end up being battlegrounds for America’s culture wars.
When the DeVos team asked charter-school advocates how we might be helpful, their explicit entreaty was that we mention charter schools as little as possible.