Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The argument FOR Betsy DeVos

Both Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), on whose board I serve, and I (personally) cannot support DeVos’s nomination – but I sincerely hope we’re wrong and that she surprises us. To that end, I’m going share this argument in her favor, made by Jim Blew, now at Student Success California, an experienced, smart and trusted friend:


I think you've mischaracterized Betsy's record, and I think she’ll be an outstanding Secretary of Education. As someone who has, as a Democrat, worked alongside Betsy since 2000, I can assure you that few, if any, other Republicans have done more to promote accountable school choice for low-income communities across the country. She has repeatedly stood up against laissez-faire advocates and insisted on focusing on students who, because of their economic situations, have no school options. She holds fast to designs that would 1) test the academic progress of scholarship recipients, 2) be transparent about the results, 3) close schools that aren’t cutting it, and 4) include tough financial controls for any school receiving public funds. It's crazy to me that she's being maligned as anti-accountability. 


We are facing serious issues with Trump, including his threat to indiscriminately deport the families of vulnerable students. The new president seems immature and dangerous, and I appreciate why we’d want to oppose him on every front. But Betsy is aligned with Democratic education reformers on most issues, in spite of the teacher unions' propaganda, especially compared to many of the people Trump could have nominated. We need to find a way to support the good while resisting the bad.


She's also bi-partisan and honest. She has taken real steps to make sure that Dems are at the table in Red States across the country. That includes pouring her and the American Federal for Children’s financial resources into electing DFERs.


If people believe her viewpoint must be warped because she's 1) a beneficiary of Amway's enormous wealth and 2) a white, conservative, evangelical Christian, let's talk about that. I appreciate the concerns. But I submit that her "different sensibilities" make her an even stronger advocate for the children who are currently getting screwed by our system.


I realize that some people are suspicious that billionaires who don’t need to do this work might have nefarious motives. I want to be respectful, but such people are either crackpots, over-zealous to defend the broken status quo, or just not thinking clearly. From my work with Besty, I’m convinced she has devoted herself to this work because she believes that what’s happening to millions of American children is just wrong. I've watched her in enough tough situations to be confident she's just as committed to helping low-income communities as we are. I wish more billionaires and Christians were like her.


As for the hearings last week, okay, she was not at her best, especially after the first 2.5 hours. It was ultimately political theater where she politely handled hostile queries from many of the panel’s Democrats, who were particularly testy because they felt they were being rushed (and then used half their time complaining about being rushed, instead of asking her questions). She didn’t exhibit mastery of IDEA, or of growth vs. proficiency, or of a half dozen issues that are so important to us policy wonks. I assure you, she is very smart and hard-working and perfectly capable of getting up to speed on everything coming at her. But let’s be clear: she was not wrong to resist the assumption that we should be regulating and “holding accountable” every school in the exact same manner. She was not going to agree that all schools in this country should end up having the same governance, rules, regs, unions, etc. as the default traditional urban school. I’m glad she didn’t.


Back on Michigan, the root of the accusation that she’s against accountability is last year's proposed amendments to the Michigan charter law, which Betsy’s Michigan team opposed. Groups like EdTrust Midwest and StudentsFirst thought it made sense, on balance, to give Mayor Duggan authority to rationalize charter authorizing in the city. On the other hand, Betsy’s team, along with the strongest charter authorizers and the charter school association, worried about whether a classic machine Democrat or future mayors could really be trusted with such power. But let’s be clear. Her opposition to Duggan's bill didn't mean she opposes accountability or improved authorizing. That's too simplistic. She just wants a solution that's protected from political meddling. She also thinks that Michigan's entire system of school accountability needs an overhaul, and that charter accountability should not be dealt with in isolation. I don't think her position is that unreasonable. 


Another point. Betsy isn't that involved in Michigan charter policy, and it's odd that people are trying to hang all of the state's charter school failures on her. That said, she knows well that there are a couple of for-profit providers in the state are failing children. We're all looking for a solution that would shut them down. (She also knows there are a lot of district providers who are failing children, and we’d all like to shut them down too.) She'd just like to do remove the bad actors without blowing apart the charter sector or killing off the for-profits that are providing decent schooling. It's actually a very tough, nuanced policy challenge, as well as a political one. Her team and allies are working sincerely on it. I hope we don’t all dismiss their proposed solution out of hand, especially if it’s one “flaw” turns out to be that it allows effective for-profit schools to continue operating.


Finally, I do hope you'll get to work with Betsy. My prediction is you'll find she's not nearly as awful as you now fear. You might even conclude, like me, that she's the only good thing so far about the Trump administration.


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