President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Department of Education is a conservative fundraiser and vocal critic of traditional public schools. While Betsy DeVos’ nomination could mean drastic change for some states, she has already made her mark on Florida’s education system.
Betsy DeVos isn’t an educator. But the experience she does have is in states like Florida, where she used her family’s fortune to steer policy away from traditional public schools. Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana joked about this reputation at her confirmation hearing.
“Do you support public education?” Cassidy asked.
“Absolutely Senator,” DeVos replied.
“Man that’s amazing," he said, laughing. "You would think…some would have us think that you do not.”
DeVos is a vocal advocate, and fundraiser, for the school choice movement. These policies free students to leave the schools they’re zoned for, and go to private or charter schools, taking tax dollars with them. One of her main cheerleaders is former Governor Jeb Bush, who upended the state’s public schools, with financial support from DeVos and others. He ushered in high stakes testing for grading students and teachers. And he implemented the first state-wide voucher program, which lets students use public money for private school. Patricia Levesque heads Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.
“Parents need the ability to pick the right school or system or services that will really meet their child’s needs. And I think those are fundamentally what Florida’s leaders, the governors, the legislature and certainly the Commissioner of Education, have held as important principles for a really long time,” Levesque said.
But opponents of the school choice movement say these policies undermine public schools. Unsurprisingly, one of the loudest critics is the state’s teachers union, the Florida Education Association. Mark Pudlow is the group’s spokesman.
“We have a very accountable public school system with testing and grades and this and that, and the…private voucher schools don’t have to have any of those things. They don’t have to follow the curriculum. They don’t have to have the testing regimen. They don’t have to hire certified teachers,” Pudlow said.
DeVos’s administration likely won’t mean drastic changes for Florida, unlike those states where vouchers and charters are illegal. But it’s still not clear how she will come down on accountability and privatization - namely allowing more for-profit control of charter schools. Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia questioned her on the issue.
“And if confirmed, will you insist upon that equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives federal funding, whether public, public charter, or private?” Kaine asked.
“I support accountability,” replied DeVos.
“Equal accountability for all schools that receive federal funding?” Kaine pressed again.
“I support accountability,” DeVos maintained.
“Ok is that a yes or a no?” he pressed.
“That’s a…I support accountability.”
North Florida Senator Bill Montford is a retired educator, and heads the state’s district superintendents association. He says he’s not overly concerned about DeVos’s nomination. But he has seen the long-term effects of choice in his own district, where the Jefferson County Schools are on the verge of closing.
“So what we have not done is to assess the impact of choice on the entire program. A lot of Jefferson County’s problems, the school district there, a lot of the problems are the results of the options that parents and schools and districts have been given,” Montford said.
School choice advocates say wealthy students are already opting into private schools, and it’s only fair to give poorer students a shot as well, hence the vouchers. But with each exiting student goes tax dollars and political capital, leaving some of the most vulnerable behind. Montford asks, what about those who can’t leave?
“Well sure they choose, but they can’t activate that choice, because they don’t have the means to do it. They may want to choose to come to Leon County to go to school, but if they don’t have transportation, they can’t do it. So they really don’t have a choice. And this is supposed to be a system that’s open to all,” Montford said.
If Florida lawmakers are going to head further down the school choice path, Montford says they should look deeply at cases like Jefferson County, where the promise of ‘choice for all’ is an empty one.