Thursday, January 26, 2017

Edushyster In DeVosland

Jennifer Berkshire often takes the unusual blogging step of doing actual journalism, like the kind where you call people and go places and actually talk to the carbon-based life forms who are involved in What's Going On. That's just part of what makes Edushyster required reading for anybody in the ed debates.

She recently traveled to DeVosland, the Michigan home base and spawning ground for Betsy DeVos, presumptive Secretary of Education, and her clan. Nine days, forty-some interviews, and a couple of exceptional posts were the product, but I wanted to hear more (and to add my vote for her to write a full-on book), so I took a page from her book and talked to her via phone. There are so many more stories to tell.
Berkshire has a keen sense of a particularly worded phrase, and she was struck by Jeb Bush's pledge pledge that DeVos would be a "champion of parents, not institutions" which strikes her a reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's "There is no such thing as society." What Thatcher meant was that there are only individuals, families and other groups of humans, but larger social structures aren't real-- particularly the ones that are charged with providing support and service for society's members. When DeVos says that she doesn't stand with institutions, that includes institutions that look out for vulnerable citizens who may not have the power to look out for themselves. You know. Like schools.

Traveling to Michigan is really a must when studying DeVos, because within the state, they've never been particularly sneaky or subtle about what they want; it's almost as if it never occurred to them that someday Betsy might need to talk about civil rights with a straight face. Berkshire says, "For example, the family paw prints are all over various legislative maneuvers intended to disenfranchise African Americans, the beefed up emergency manager law that created the Flint water disaster being just one of these." Berkshire says that several (off-the-record) legislators said that Betsy herself helped push through a measure to end straight ticket voting at election time in order to discourage black voters in Flint and Detroit by making lines longer and slower. A judge struck it down for that very reason.

Berkshire also notes that Michigan is essentially a one-party state. The DeVos clan doesn't really deal with Democrats at all, but focuses a lot of attention on keeping their own party in line. There's a long list of people who "have been taken to the woodshed," and the clan often brings a great deal of firepower to even small betrayals (which suggests one reason that DeVos might be a good fit for a Trump administration). DeVos demands that legislators show more loyalty to the family than to the voters.

Some folks in Michigan say that DeVos can be flexible when it suits her. Race to the Top was initially viewed with suspicion until, some claim, Betsy figured out that it could be used to break Detroit City Schools. While the knock on DeVos is that she is anti-accountability, some Michigan folks say she can embrace accountability quite well when it lets her blow shit up.

Consider specifically the story of the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a fun Michigan version of the state takeover district dodge. Berkshire tells the tale:

The EAA was initially created in an effort to win Race to the Top money, and DeVos and her allies were meh about it because it was really a Broad thing. But within three months, they’re pushing hard to expand the EAA statewide, even though there wasn’t yet any data. If you go back and look at the debate over expanding the EAA, you can almost feel the DeVos’ realization that they’ve been handed a gift with this thing that will enable them to go after their favorite targets--teachers unions, school boards, public school buildings. And by 2014, even when it was a measurable, disastrous failure, they were threatening to primary anyone who voted against expanding the EAA.

There are other side stories in the Mitten State. There's the story of how Detroit was on its way to being a portfolio district, with a whole alphabet soup of reformy groups carving up the spoils before Betsy blew the whole thing up and sent many reformy groups packing. There's a good reason that "progressive" reformsters are not lining up to back her.

Scan the Mitten state landscape and you’ll notice something interesting: there are virtually no #edreform groups. Where are they all? Michigan DFER is dead. Excellent Schools Detroit has withered away. Even Ed Trust, one of the last group’s standing, has come out against DeVos. In my interview with Gary Naeyaert, Betsy’s right-hand man at GLEP, he even accused the Waltons of “cutting and running”!

There's also the fascinating story of how the clan busted the union, but other groups have risen up to become equally annoying. Surprisingly, many Charter Management Organizations, which have historically depending on TFA as their classroom fillers no longer want to work with Teach for America because TFAers have gotten themselves a reputation for being troublemakers (aka keep trying to start unions, the little ingrates).

There's the infamous University of Michigan study of charter success in Michigan that is now three years overdue. Instead, the DeVos charter crowd keeps plugging the same old CREDO study. Where are the newer numbers? Nobody seems to know-- it's almost as if someone doesn't want that information to get out.

Berkshire also has some good stories about charter pluggers in Michigan, who have to go through some real contortions because Michigan is such a charter disaster. There is the story (recounted in her blog here) of the charter fans who, when asked to name a shining star, a prime example of great Michigan charters in action, actually named the charter run by an optometrist who was sent to jail for running his fraudulent charter school. That's their shining star.

If DeVos is confirmed (and while I will keep calling, and you should too, a confirmation is hugely likely), there will be some small upsides. Berkshire notes that defenders of public ed will no longer have to struggle to show the connection between charters, choice, and the privatization of pieces of a dismantled public ed system. Kind of like all those House episodes where he deliberately makes the disease worse so that it's easier to see and diagnose. Sending DeVos to DC may also earn Michigan a breather.

And if DeVos is confirmed, all of Berkshire's material will become hugely relevant and she can write the full account of DeVos's Michigan.

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