Posts Tagged ‘Betsy Devos’

The Teachers Union’s Public Enemy No. 1

September 2, 2017

Betsy DeVos is Trump’s stylistic opposite, but she stirs more antagonism than any other cabinet member.

 By

Tallahassee, Fla.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos liked what she saw Tuesday when she visited a pair of schools in Florida’s capital. When we met that afternoon, she had just come from the Florida State University School, a K-12 charter sponsored by the FSU College of Education. “I had a little roundtable with teachers,” she says. They raved about the school’s culture, which enables them “to be free to innovate and try things in the classroom that don’t necessarily conform with the instructor in the next classroom.”

Earlier in the day Mrs. DeVos had been at Holy Comforter Episcopal, a parochial school that serves pupils from prekindergarten through eighth grade. “They started STEM programs before STEM became the cool thing to do,” she says, “and it was just great to visit a variety of the classrooms and see some of the fun things that they’re doing to get kids interested.”

Local officials in this heavily Democratic area were less enthusiastic. “It’s obvious that the secretary and our federal government have very little respect for our traditional public-school system,” Rocky Hanna, Leon County’s superintendent of schools, groused to the Tallahassee Democrat. “And it’s insulting that she’s going to visit the capital of the state of Florida, to visit a charter school, a private school and a voucher school.” (A correction on the newspaper’s website noted that she did not visit the voucher school, Bethel Christian Academy, but rather attended a “private roundtable event” at the church center that houses it.)

ILLUSTRATION: KEN FALLIN

Mrs. DeVos, 59, stirs more passionate antagonism than any other member of President Trump’s cabinet—and that was true even before she took office. Two Republicans dissented from her February confirmation and no Democrat supported it, resulting in a 50-50 vote. She is the only cabinet secretary in U.S. history whose appointment required a vice-presidential tiebreaker.

Since then Mrs. DeVos has hit the road and visited 27 schools. Her first call, three days after she was sworn in, was Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, less than a mile from the Education Department’s headquarters. She was met by protesters, who blocked the entrance and shouted: “Go Back! Shame, shame!” When I ask about that incident, she plays it down: “There were just a few people that really didn’t want to see me enter the school. I don’t think they had anything to do with that school. But we, fortunately, found another way to get in, and I was greeted very warmly by all of the teachers.”

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The Anti-School Choice Coalition

April 13, 2017

Democrats in Maryland and the GOP in Texas punish poor kids.

Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, stands with Maryland Democrats on Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Annapolis, Md.

Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association, stands with Maryland Democrats on Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Annapolis, Md. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Teachers unions portray vouchers as a nefarious Republican scheme though support for—and opposition to—private school choice is often bipartisan. Witness how Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in Texas have stymied efforts to improve educational options for poor kids.

Last week Maryland’s Democratic General Assembly overrode GOP Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill that restricts his ability to enact school reforms. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states must develop plans to identify and rehabilitate low-performing public schools. In Maryland this job falls to the 12-member Board of Education appointed by the governor.

Democrats have passed legislation limiting objective measures of academic performance (e.g., student achievement, growth, graduation rates) to 65% of a school’s score. So schools in which the vast majority of kids fail state tests could still get a passing grade if, say, they score high on teacher satisfaction or attendance.

The legislation also prohibits the board from issuing letter grades to schools and converting failing ones to charters or appointing new management—interventions backed by the Obama Administration. Nor can the board offer vouchers to students who attend chronically low-performing schools. In other words, Democrats want to keep poor kids trapped in failing schools while concealing the evidence.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools this year ranked Maryland’s charter-school law the weakest in the country, and a lack of high-quality options may be driving parents from Baltimore. The U.S. Census Bureau says Baltimore’s population decreased by 7,000 between 2015 and 2016, the third largest decline among county-sized jurisdictions after Cook County (Chicago) and Wayne County (Detroit).

Ironically, many of Maryland’s black parents fled Washington, D.C. two decades ago amid the capital’s fiscal crisis and deteriorating public schools. But over the last 15 years Washington has been at the forefront of school reform. Former chancellor Michelle Rhee imposed rigorous teacher evaluations, eliminated tenure, introduced merit pay and expanded school choice. Nearly half of students attend charters while about 1,200 receive federally funded private-school scholarships.

The results speak for themselves: In 2015 Washington, D.C. ranked as the fastest improving urban school district on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in fourth-grade reading. On the other hand, Baltimore’s fourth-grade math and reading test scores dropped more than any other school district. Unyielding Democratic opposition to reform in Maryland may propel more parents in Baltimore to leave, undercutting tax revenues and public schools.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Texas House have deep-sixed legislation passed by the state Senate creating tax-credit scholarships and education-savings accounts for low-income kids. After rural lawmakers complained that vouchers would harm their local schools, Senate Republicans restricted scholarship eligibility to the state’s 17 largest counties and capped tax credits at $25 million.

House Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty says the bill is dead on arrival, and more than two-thirds of House lawmakers voted last week to ban state funds from flowing to private schools. In February Mr. Huberty called vouchers “a solution in search of a problem.” Would he like to defend the status quo in Houston where a mere one in five eighth-graders score proficient in reading?

In selecting Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, Donald Trump picked a school-choice warrior who’s fought for years on the barricades. The setbacks in Texas and Maryland show why her experience and tenacity are needed.

Appeared in the Apr. 12, 2017, print edition.

The ‘Shaming’ of Betsy DeVos

February 28, 2017

The education secretary should use what her critics fear most: the bully pulpit.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Feb. 23.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Feb. 23.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Here’s a suggestion for America’s new secretary of education: Forget about federal education policy.

Not that policy isn’t important. But if Betsy DeVos wants to make her time count, she’d do best to use what her critics fear most: her bully pulpit. Because if Mrs. DeVos does nothing else in her time but lay bare the corruption of a system failing children who need a decent education most—and shame all those standing in the way of reforming it—she will go down as an education secretary of consequence.

“The temptation for an education secretary is to make a few earnest speeches but never really challenge the forces responsible for failure,” says Jeanne Allen,founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.

“But the moms and dads whose children are stuck in schools where they aren’t learning need better choices now—and a secretary of education who speaks up for them and takes on the teachers unions and the politicians on their own turf.”

Excellent advice, not least because education is (rightly) a state and local issue and Secretary DeVos has neither the authority nor the wherewithal to transform our public schools from Washington. What she does have is the means to force the moral case out into the open.

New York City would be a good place to start. In Bill de Blasio, the city boasts, if that is the right word, a mayor who fancies himself the nation’s progressive-in-chief, along with a schools chancellor who has all the credentials Mrs. DeVos is accused of lacking, including experience teaching in public schools.

Unfortunately, these credentials haven’t done much to help students. Only 36% of New York City district-school pupils from grades 3 to 8 passed math, and only 38% English. For black students the numbers drop to 20% proficient in math and 27% in English. As a general rule, the longer New York City kids stay in traditional public schools, the worse they do.

It can’t be for lack of resources. Figures from the city’s independent budget office list New York as spending $23,516 per pupil this school year, among the most in the U.S. And instead of closing bad schools, Mr. de Blasio has opted for the teachers-union solution: More spending!

The result? More than two years and nearly half a billion dollars after his “Renewal” program for chronically failing schools was announced, there’s little to show for it.

How might Mrs. DeVos respond? How about a trip to the South Bronx, where she could visit, say, MS 301 Paul L. Dunbar, St. Athanasius and the Success Academy Bronx 1 grade and middle schools. These are, respectively, a traditional public middle-school for grades 6-8, a K-8 Catholic school, and a pair of Success charters serving K-7.

Imagine how Mrs. DeVos might change the conversation by speaking publicly about the differences among these schools? Or by meeting with neighborhood kids languishing on the 44,000-long wait list for a seat at a city charter? Or by asking the non-Catholic parents at St. Athanasius, whose children are there because of a scholarship program, to talk about the difference this school is making in their children’s lives?

Mayor de Blasio would howl. The teachers unions would show up to protest. But the furor a DeVos visit provoked would underscore her point about just whose interests are being sacrificed—and provide a tremendous force equalizer for outgunned parents and reformers taking on the education establishment.

Now imagine Mrs. DeVos making this same kind of visit to other cities where the public-school systems for decades have effectively been consigning their poor and minority students to a future on the margins of the American dream: Baltimore, Detroit, Fresno, Calif., etc. And not just the cities: Rural districts have their own share of complacent pols of both parties who need to be called to account.

Certainly the teachers unions and the Democrats they hold in their pockets account for the core of the opposition to the choice and accountability. But the GOP has made its own grim contributions to our two-tiered public-school system. This includes in Illinois in 2010, when nearly half the Republicans in the state House provided the margin needed to kill a Chicago voucher program.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy has to be reminded that the ruby slippers she wears must be very powerful or the Wicked Witch wouldn’t want them so badly. Mrs. DeVos finds herself in a similar position. She will do well to remember that the nastiness of her confirmation was in fact a backhanded recognition by her foes that they have lost the moral argument.

“The opposition to change is not polite and always on the offense,” says Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York. “Betsy’s going to need to play offense or we will lose another generation of children.”

Write to McGurn@wsj.com.

Who’s Afraid of Betsy DeVos?

January 17, 2017

Trump’s Education nominee is the top Democratic target.

Democrats are searching for a cabinet nominee to defeat, and it’s telling that progressive enemy number one is Betsy DeVos. Donald Trump’s choice to run the Education Department has committed the unpardonable sin of devoting much of her fortune to helping poor kids escape failing public schools.

Progressives and their media allies have spent the last week roughing up Mrs. DeVos in preparation for her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, which will feature the charms of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Liberals claim that Mrs. DeVos, wife of former Amway president Dick DeVos, is unqualified to lead the Education Department because she’s never been a teacher.

Yet the same crowd howls that bankers shouldn’t be regulating banks. Which is it? Managing a bureaucracy isn’t like running a classroom, though both require a steely resolve. Most Education secretaries have been former teachers or school superintendents—not that student test scores are better for it.

Perhaps Mrs. DeVos’s most important qualification is that she has the courage of her convictions. Progressives are willing to brook billionaires who use their wealth to expand government or augment their political influence. Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker, whose family is a major Democratic patron, served as President Obama’s Commerce secretary. But a conservative who’s dedicated her private fortune to liberating poor kids trapped in lousy public schools? The horror!

The DeVoses have donated tens of millions of dollars to charity including a children’s hospital in Michigan and an international art competition in Grand Rapids. They’ve also given to Christian organizations, which the left cites as evidence of concealed bigotry. Yet education has been their main philanthropic cause.

During the 1990s, they patronized a private-school scholarship fund for low-income families and championed Michigan’s first charter school law. In 2000 they helped bankroll a voucher initiative, which was defeated by a union blitz. The DeVoses then turned to expanding charters, which have become Exhibit A in the progressive campaign against her. Unions claim Michigan charters are inferior to the state’s public schools and that 80% are run for profit.

These claims are spurious. Detroit charters are low performing—only 19% of students are proficient in English—but they’re better than the alternative. Charter students in Detroit on average score 60% more proficient on state tests than kids attending the city’s traditional public schools. Eighteen of the top 25 schools in Detroit are charters while 23 of the bottom 25 are traditional schools.

Two studies from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2013, 2015) found that students attending Michigan charters gained on average an additional two months of learning every year over their traditional school counterparts. Charter school students in Detroit gained three months.

Eighty-percent of Michigan charters utilize a private education service provider. Yet only about half are operated by a for-profit entity, and almost all of these are mom-and-pop businesses run by Michigan residents. While unions have fought to keep failing public schools open, Mrs. DeVos backed a 2009 law allowing the state to close public schools—charters included—that scored in the bottom 5% of the state for three consecutive years. Only seven of the 54 schools with two strikes in the past two years were charters.

The real reason unions fear Mrs. DeVos is that she’s a rare reformer who has defeated them politically. Prior to being tapped by Mr. Trump, she chaired the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has helped elect hundreds of legislators across the country who support private school choice. Last year AFC and its affiliate groups spent $5 million on elections compared to the teachers unions’ $138 million. Yet 108 of the 121 candidates AFC supported won their races.

AFC has built a broad coalition that includes black and Latino Democrats, undercutting the union conceit that vouchers are a GOP plot to destroy public schools. In 2000 four states had private-school choice programs with 29,000 kids. Today, 25 states have vouchers, tax-credit scholarships or education-savings accounts benefitting more than 400,000 students.

Even if they can’t defeat Mrs. DeVos’s nomination, unions hope to leave her so politically weakened that she won’t be able to implement her agenda. The character assassinations—e.g., that she supports anti-gay groups—are primarily intended to turn the bureaucracy and public against her.

Yet their nasty campaign reeks of political desperation. You know progressives have lost their moral bearings when they save their most ferocious assault for a woman who wants to provide poor children with the education they need to succeed in America.

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Betsy DeVos’s School Mission

November 25, 2016

One promise of the Trump Presidency is that it will try to break up Washington’s political cartels. Among the worst is the Education Department, and Betsy DeVos is well positioned to take it on as Mr. Trump’s nominee to run that wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions and cultural left.

Mrs. DeVos is a philanthropist who has devoted years and much of her fortune to promoting school reform, especially charter schools and vouchers. She chairs the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has fought in the trenches across the country for more school choice to liberate kids from failing schools. By trenches we mean hand-to-hand political combat in state legislative races against the teachers unions.

AFC was especially successful this year, as 108 of the 121 candidates it supported won their elections. AFC candidates in Florida won 20 of 21 targeted races. The group’s biggest coup was ousting a scourge of school choice in a Miami-Dade Senate district where Democrats are a majority. The teachers union dumped $1 million into the race but still lost.

The union hoped to demonstrate diminishing public support for Florida’s tax-credit scholarships—the largest private-school choice program in the country—which is under review by the state Supreme Court. AFC ran ads with parents of scholarship recipients demanding that opponents be held accountable.

Choice advocates scored other big victories this month in what is an underreported election story. Indiana Republican Jennifer McCormick dislodged State Education Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who attacked charters and vouchers during her four-year term. Republican Mark Johnson also defenestrated a union-backed superintendent in North Carolina.

Teachers unions fanned public fury over North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law to exact retribution against GOP Governor Pat McCrory, who repealed teacher tenure, expanded charters and established vouchers. Even if Mr. McCrory loses his tight race for re-election, the legislature has locked in funding for vouchers that will escalate over 12 years.

New York Republicans maintained their state Senate majority, which is a crucial bulwark against the union-controlled Assembly. At least nine of the 10 Republican candidates supported by the pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY prevailed.

Charter groups even racked up victories in California, where many legislative races featured two Democrats due to the state’s nonpartisan primary. In an East Bay Assembly seat, Democrat Tim Grayson beat Mae Torlakson, who is married to the state’s union-friendly superintendent of public instruction. Charter groups also helped elect Democrat Anna Caballero and former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra to reclaim the seat he lost two years ago to a union frontwoman. California Teachers Association president Eric Heinsfrets that the freshman legislators could have a long-term impact.

One of Mrs. DeVos’s tasks will be leveraging her bully pulpit and federal dollars to extend this progress to the states, where most education money is spent. She will be the most pro-choice secretary since Bill Bennett in the Reagan years, and she is a particular improvement over George W. Bush’s secretary Margaret Spellings. The National Education Association union blew a gasket at Mrs. DeVos’s appointment Wednesday, which qualifies as high praise.

Mrs. DeVos will have to study up quickly on higher education, where the ObamaAdministration has done so much harm. This means revisiting rules on for-profit colleges and especially the destructive “guidance” on enforcing Title IX that has forced schools to jettison due process for accused students and faculty.

The union and progressive backlash will be ferocious, so it’s good that Mr. Trump has picked a nominee in Mrs. DeVos who knows how to fight and to make the moral case for reform.