Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey's office was one that was bombarded with phone calls, faxes, texts, tweets, emails, and messages strapped to the backs of delivery hamsters during the run up to the Betsy DeVos confirmation. At one point he was targeted as one of the GOP senators who might change his mind, which struck me as odd because I've met Toomey and heard him talk about school choice and I don't think he'll be abandoning that drum any time soon. That's okay-- it couldn't have hurt for him (or at least some member of his staff) to hear from actual constituents.
That may be why Toomey (or at least some member of his staff) took the time to write a Betsy DeVos mash note that appeared at PennLive this week. It doesn't make his support of DeVos any more palatable, but it does at least show in brief, painful detail why Toomey is not a supporter of public education.
Toomey opens with what is one of my least favorite pro-charter-choice lines:
No child should be forced to stay in a failing school.
Can anybody, anywhere, find me the person who wants to force a child to stay in a failing school? Nobody anywhere disagrees with this statement. There's considerable disagreement about the definition of a failing school, but let's let that slide for a moment and accept that pretty much everyone believes that there are some schools failing to get the job done. The disagreement starts immediately after that period at the end of this statement.
For modern charter-choice advocates, the next sentence is "That's why we're going to allow maybe five percent of those students to leave that school for some other school that may or may not be any better, and we're going to provide less funding for the school to try to help the remaining 95%."
That is not a solution.
No, the next sentence ought to be, "That's why we're going to marshal the resources, the finances, the support, and the same exercise will that this country brings to other major efforts, to improving that school so that every child within its walls is getting the very best education." The next sentence ought to be about making all schools better for all students.
That's never the next sentence. And it's not the next sentence here, either.
Toomey says that Betsy DeVos wants poor children to have the same kinds of choices that rich and middle class students have, and if you think that means she's a big fan of improved housing in urban areas, well, no. She means something more like her Detroit schools, where students who are forcibly "liberated" from their neighborhood schools are presented with an assortment of upscale schools that will not admit them.
Toomey (or one the members of his staff) works in all the reformy wiggle-words. Thanks to DeVos's hard work and use of her personal fortune, thousands of those poor "trapped" students "have been able to access a quality education." Oh, that word "access." Everyone on the Titanic had "access" to a lifeboat; just not everybody actually got to an actual seat.
"DeVos refuses to give up on any child," says Toomey, which makes me wonder how many children she has actually met. To read Toomey's Hymn to Betsy, you would think that she has been using her billion-dollar personal fortune to pay private school and college tuition for thousands of Michigan children instead of spending millions and millions of dollars to swing elections and earn the well-purchased loyalty of politicians.
Toomey also touts the success of Detroit charters, which are okay schools as long as you don't compare them to schools anywhere else in the country. Detroit public schools are a mess. Detroit charter schools are a mess. Michigan's school system is a mess, one of the failingest in the country. DeVos owns some of that mess, but she has yet to acknowledge it, has actively opposed regulating it, and told the Senate HELP committee that she could not think of any lesson she had learned from any of it.
But Toomey is not interested in exploring any of that because here's what he knows:
School choice works.
You might expect that such a bold assertion might be followed with evidence. You would be wrong. Toomey follows up with anecdotes. A family that scrimped and saved and sent kids to private schools. And his own story-- the fortunate 8th grader who won a philanthropist's scholarship to a top Catholic school. Toomey and DeVos want a world in which all students can have that good luck, without it being luck. And yet, DeVos's work in Michigan has been all about solidifying the divide between what the rich and the poor can have for an education.
Toomey (or some member of his staff) will continue to run the usual talking points here.
Critics assert that DeVos has no experience in public education, even though she has spent decades aiding charter schools--which are public schools.
She has spent decades as a high-powered lobbyist, which is "aiding" only if you think the most important part of operating a charter school is the getting money without oversight part. And no, Pat-- charter schools are not public schools.
Or they call Betsy DeVos "unqualified" because she is not proficient in D.C. jargon and does not fit the mold of previous Education Secretaries.
Nope. They call her unqualified because she is unqualified. Even in this piece, Toomey cannot list any qualifications for her other than her concern, her lobbying experience, and her money.
But where have these previous Education Secretaries left us?
It's true. We've had a string of education secretaries who were also spectacularly unqualified and who did a lousy job. Toomey stops just short of declaring, "So what we need is someone with even fewer qualifications than John King or Arne Duncan!"
What Toomey does want to do is trot out the old "We've been spending more and more money on education and yet our standardized test scores haven't gone up," He's going to go deep twisty spin on this point, by listing points like "Our SAT scores were really low in 2012" or "according to NAEP some big number of students aren't ready for college.' Both of these stats are baloney, the kind of thing you cherry pick when you want to buttress a bad point, not when you're really trying to understand what's going on. (Pro tip: SAT averages depend on who's taking the test, and NAEP scores are highly suspect as predictors of success).
Toomey finishes up by saying that sure there are many swell public schools and they have nothing to fear from choice, and also, the money should follow the child.
"Money should follow the child" is wrong in many ways, but it signals that Toomey, like DeVos, would like to go full voucher. (Pro tip: parents are not the only stakeholders in public education. See also: separation of church and state).
It's also wrong because it signals that Toomey would like to run multiple parallel school systems for the same money we currently spend on one system. That is simply impossible. I'd respect Toomey and other choice advocates a bit more if they just said so-- "We really believe in choice, and to make it work we'll have to raise school taxes, but we think it will really be worth it." Oddly enough, they never say that.
As I mentioned, I met Toomey once at a local meet-and-greet with voters. He seems like a nice guy, was sweet with his kids, and looks far less scowly-librarian than all of his official photos. But he's not a friend of public education, at all. He's also a member of the new "I'd rather not meet my constituents face to face in a real town hall" club, so if you want to explain a few things to him, you'll have to stick with phone calls, faxes, emails, tweets, and the occasional hamstergram. Good luck to all of us in Pennsylvania.