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Betsy DeVos Is Making “School Choice” Toxic for Democrats

Conservatives frame privatization as a civil rights issue, but Trump's extreme agenda is energizing racial justice and public education advocates.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Last September, at a rally in Roanoke, Virginia, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump made a promise to black America. “I will fight to make sure every single African-American child in this country is fully included in the American dream,” he said. “That includes the new civil rights issue of our time: school choice.” This has been a familiar refrain for Trump. “At rallies last year across the country,” The New York Times reported in March, “Trump said over and over again that he would use the nation’s schools to fix what he described as failing inner cities and a virtual education crisis that most hurts black and Hispanic children. In North Carolina, he called school choice ‘the great civil rights issue of our time.’ In Florida, he declared that ‘every disadvantaged child in this country’ should have access to school choice.”

“School choice” is conservative-speak for charter schools and vouchers, both of which represent a different degree of privatization in education. Vouchers use taxpayer dollars to fund attendance at private and religious schools, while charters are publicly funded but, in many cases, privately controlled. Trump’s education policy advocates for both, and in his controversial appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, he elevated a longtime champion of the cause. Like her boss, she has pitched school choice as a solution to racial inequities in education, saying in February that historically black colleges and universities “are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.” (This is flat wrong. These schools were created, the Times notes, “as a direct response to rigid racial segregation when the doors of white colleges were typically closed to African-Americans.”)

Trump and DeVos are among the many opponents of public education who, for more than a decade now, have cast school privatization as a civil rights mission, arguing that vouchers and charters extend opportunity to communities of color. Even many Democrats, while maintaining that education is a public good, have bought into this narrative. But last year, the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives called for a moratorium on charters, with the former saying the schools exacerbate segregation and destabilize traditional public schools (not least by diverting funds away from them). These civil rights groups, the Times reported, “portray charters as the pet project of foundations financed by white billionaires, and argue that the closing of traditional schools as students migrate to charters has disproportionately disrupted black communities.”

The NAACP’s concerns over charters were front and center at its annual convention in Baltimore this week. The group’s education task force, which visited seven cities since last October to hear from supporters and opponents, released a major report on Wednesday that concluded that “changing school governance by creating ever more charter schools is not a panacea”:

There are indeed some excellent charter schools.... However, we also heard about the many poor charter schools that fail to serve children with the greatest needs, offer suboptimal education, and engage in financial mismanagement, sometimes pocketing public money to make a profit for private citizens.

Further, we heard about the results of a loss of neighborhood schools when they are closed in order to create charters—the long bus rides for young children, the inability of parents to be engaged in schools far from their communities, and the loss of civil rights protections for children who cannot get into a school near their home and, in effect, have no real choice.

This report, coming as it does six months into the Trump presidency, represents a significant confluence of events. As charters are increasingly associated with the administration’s toxic education agenda, progressives now see an opportunity to change the national conversation about school reform—to push back against privatization, and convince communities of color that these policies don’t address racial injustice. The Center for American Progress released a report earlier this month on the “racist origins” of vouchers, and last week Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a speech that privatization and disinvestment in education were “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

“The ground definitely is more fertile,” said Preston Green, an education professor at the University of Connecticut. “I think President Trump’s support of choice does make it difficult. It might make people think twice about it, and especially DeVos’s selling of it.... You’re definitely starting to see a shift.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s education agenda and criticism from civil rights groups “might have made it easier for those who oppose charters to oppose them more vociferously.”

Brookings Institution fellow Jon Valant made a similar case in February, writing that “the Trump administration’s support of charters and choice may be distracting from—and contributing to—an emerging political threat to school choice programs, especially charter schools: renewed skepticism from Democrats.” In other words, with her extremist position on school choice, DeVos may be harming the very movement she helped build.

“Politics makes strange bedfellows, and this certainly has been true for school choice politics,” Valant noted. “Early voucher and charter programs were rooted in political alliances between conservatives, motivated by market efficiency and individual liberty, and civil rights groups, motivated by equity and opportunity.” Republicans historically have backed a wide spectrum of choice, from charters to tuition tax credits to vouchers. While many Democrats also support charters, they draw the line at vouchers.

But some Democrats, particularly in cities, have embraced the full school choice agenda. Anthony Williams, the former Democratic mayor of Washington, D.C., appeared in an ad this year in support of DeVos, saying she “fought by my side” for the District’s voucher program. Senator Cory Booker supported charters and vouchers as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and sat on the board of Alliance for School Choice with DeVos. (He voted against her confirmation this year, but so did every Democrat.) In general, Democrats have stayed in the good graces of public school defenders by limiting their support to “public school choice.” But now that the Trump administration is promoting charters as part of a broader school choice agenda, and civil rights groups are increasingly leery of charters, Democrats are facing pressure to oppose all privatization schemes.

“I think the civil rights community standing up to that narrative—that charter schools equal civil rights—has now become problematic for the people making that argument,” said Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at California State University, Sacramento, and an NAACP delegate. “I think what’s happening is there’s really an awakening in communities that school choice isn’t as promised—that when charter schools and private schools are able to make decisions about kids without any recourse for families, communities are discovering that they’ve been sold a bill of goods.”

This political peril isn’t lost on charter advocates. “I can’t think of anything more potentially harmful to the charter school movement, or anything more antithetical to its progressive roots, than having Donald Trump as its national champion,” Shavar Jeffries, president of the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform, told the 74 after Trump’s election last year. “If Trump thinks he can buy off progressive education reformers by merely increasing funding for the federal charter school program while simultaneously advancing destructive policies like throwing millions of families off of federally subsidized health care and deporting millions of Dreamers and their parents, he’s in for a rude surprise.”

Of course, one can support charters without buying into the rest of the Trump-DeVos agenda. As The American Prospect reported last year, “School choice advocates point to research studies that suggest black students perform better in charter schools than in traditional public schools, and to surveys showing support among black families for school choice.” Overall, though, charters haven’t turned out better results than traditional public schools. “Charter schools are a failed experiment,” education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in The New Republic earlier this year.

Study after study has shown that they do not get better test scores than public schools unless they screen out English-language learners and students with profound disabilities. It’s well-established that school choice increases segregation, rather than giving low-income students better opportunities. And kids using vouchers actually lose ground in private schools. Support for charters is paving the way for a dual school system—one that is allowed to choose the students it wants, and another that is required to accept all who enroll.

Ravitch called for the Democratic Party to “reclaim their mantle as the party of public education” and oppose privatization in all its forms. The Trump administration is certainly pushing the party in that direction. “It’s a real bump in the road for people who believe they’re progressive because they’ve found themselves on the same team as Donald Trump,” Heilig said. “I think they have to look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a Teach for America person, I’m all for charter schools, I’m about social justice and Black Lives Matter, but why I am on the same side as Donald Trump when it comes to charter schools and ‘school choice’?”

Hundreds of people turned out in sweltering heat on Saturday for the March for Public Education on the National Mall, where students, teachers, union leaders, and others took turns castigating the DeVos agenda. Paul Perry, a former Philadelphia teacher looking to unseat Republican Representative Pat Meehan in Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District, drew cheers with his pitch for increased education funding, free college, and “a national living wage for all workers, especially teachers.” He said, “I’ll stop believing that money doesn’t matter in education when all these rich folks stop spending so much money on their kids’ education and under funding our schools. It’s wrong.” As he left the stage, women in the audience shouted “Where do we give you money?” and “How do we donate?”

Shaking hands with well-wishers afterwards, Perry told me he thinks Democrats need a new approach to education. He disagrees with the NAACP’s moratorium—he supports some charters—but acknowledges that choice won’t revitalize the nation’s schools. “I don’t see that countries with really strong education systems have anything like the charter sector we have in this county,” he said. “Broadly, if we’re looking at data, they’re not markedly outperforming public schools.” Perry, who is black, also doesn’t buy that school choice is a civil rights issue. “I think making sure that teachers are well-paid and supported—and making sure that students and their families are well-paid and supported—is the civil rights issue of our time.”

The irony, Heilig told me, is that no one is against the basic principle of “school choice”—that parents should have options. “The debate is whether schools that are private schools or privately managed like charter schools should have the power in the conversations about whether students can enroll and whether students can stay,” he said. “We want to make sure that parents and families can do the choosing and the public interest is protected.” In his view, “the thrust of the next ten years of education reform must be democratically controlled, community-based reform.” In short, “Democratically controlled ‘school choice’ is a civil right issue. Privatizing our education system and profiting from public dollars is not.”