We need to talk about Betsy

Dear Donald – 

We need to talk about Betsy. I realize that she’s been good to you and to your party. She’s donated to all the right causes (and by that I mean all the causes on the right) and said all the right things. The problem is, she’s just not qualified for the job. She doesn’t have experience working in (or attending) public schools. She doesn’t understand the basic foundations of education debates. She doesn’t understand that States are required to follow federal law. Save face and save children from her policies – withdraw her nomination to be Secretary of Education. 

One of Betsy’s biggest causes is what she refers to as “public school choice.”  In general, public school choice can refer to several different arrangements – allowing students to move among traditional public schools if they don’t like what they’re getting at their current school, allowing the proliferation of charter schools, or vouchers for students to take public school funds to attend private schools. 

Broadly, there is a major flaw in any public school choice plan and that is that it assumes that public schools, their leaders, and their teachers aren’t doing the best they can each and every day to help students learn. It assumes that, somehow, by taking away students and funding, and without providing any additional support, schools will improve. Any halfway decent manager will tell you that the best way to deal with an underperformed isn’t to bleed them dry of what they need to succeed. It’s to provide them extra supports. In the instance of public schools, it means extra resources and professional development. It means giving them the same chance that high income schools do. 

For charter schools, of which Betsy is a big fan, the promise and plan was always simple – reduce the bureaucracy and provide additional flexibilities but have much higher accountability. Charter schools can operate outside of the traditional school administrative structure, with the hope that those extra freedoms allow some innovation that improves student performance. If they’re doing well, they get to continue to operate. If not, they get closed. 

Unfortunately, Betsy missed That second part. In Michigan, she fought hard to reduce oversight of charters. Nearly anyone can authorize new charter schools to open and they rarely, if ever, close. They promise the world to students, and don’t deliver, while pocketing State and Federal funding. Even worse, for-profit corporations, including one that Betsy owns, are allowed to operate the schools. So not only are the charters not meeting the needs of students, But millionaires and billionaires are making a profit. 

Even worse than allowing millionaires to operate public charter schools as their personal ATMs is funneling public funds into private schools, including religious schools. Private school vouchers are a problem for a number of reasons. 

The value of vouchers provided to public school students rarely cover the full cost of tuition at private schools. As a result, private schools need to either accept less than sticker price to admit students or students and their families have to make up the difference. The former means few schools will participate in the program and those that do will accept fewer students. The latter means that the only families that will be able to take advantage of the program are those that can afford to cut a check. In either instance, the low-income kids in underperforming schools are still getting left behind. 

When existing private schools don’t meet pent up demand to use these vouchers, new private schools will enter the space to suck up the funding, and they will do what they can to make a dollar. We’ve seen this in the higher education space, where for-profit colleges have entered into the sector and made fortunes at the expense of students looking only to improve their lives. In the latest survey of for-profit schools, more than a quarter failed to meet the basic standards of ensuring gainful employment for their students. Schools are not, and should not be, a profiteering opportunity. 

Additionally, these plans forget that, unlike public schools, private schools are under no obligation to accept all applicants. As a result, they will likely cream the best and easiest to educate students, leaving the more difficult cases, including students with disabilities, to public schools which now have fewer resources to meet their needs. 

While we’re talking about kids with disabilities, let’s be clear – private schools are not required to provide them special education and related services. And, as soon as they enter private schools, they are considered “parentally placed” under the IDEA, meaning that they forfeit almost all due process rights under the law. As a result, if that private school doesn’t meet their needs, they have no recourse other than moving back to the public school and starting again. 

Even without these basic problems, there are additional capacity issues. Private schools in this country, even if they did want to accept all students who came to their doors, could not meet the needs of the tens of millions of students across this country. They don’t have enough seats. They don’t even operate in many areas of the country, like our inner cities and rural areas. Even if they did, how do low income kids get to school? They don’t operate a wide network of bus routes to help get kids to school. 

Needless to say, public school choice doesn’t do much for kids in need. It really just undermines the public school system and bolsters wealthy elites who have already fled public schools for their private enclaves. 

Betsy claims to be a big proponent of accountability, but her hearing made it clear that she doesn’t even understand the debate. When asked whether we should test for proficiency (whether kids meet an absolute bar) or growth (improvement over time), she didn’t even understand the basic terms. If you can’t understand that, how can you meaningfully participate in the debate. Folks in the education world come to different conclusions on these issues, and they respect people who believe differently than they do, but they need to know you understand the issues first. You brought a third grader to a debate among astrophysicists. That’s unacceptable. 

My wife is a teacher, and she spends her days in a school trying to make the lives of children better. If you talk to her and her colleagues, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thought guns in the building would make them safer. Guns in schools are a pretty simple issue for most folks. The fact that Betsy couldn’t answer a question about her stance means that she either has an opinion that is so abhorrent that she can’t articulate it in public or she doesn’t know enough to articulate it. In either case, it’s unacceptable. 

Betsy’s a problem. Save us all from her influence and save yourself the awkwardness of having your nominee voted down.  Rescind her nomination. 

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