Betsy DeVos, folks!
The stuttering incoherence and total lack of even casual familiarity with the state of education back home on display Sunday night during the U.S. Secretary of Education’s interview with “60 Minutes’” Lesley Stahl?
That’s the woman whose firm-but-horribly-misguided hand has directed education policy here in Michigan since the 1990s.
And that’s the kind of profound insight that gets the Michigan Legislature to say “How high?” when DeVos says “Jump!”
Pair it with humdingers like this, and it explains an awful lot about why we’re not doing so hot:
Schools, yes, are made up of individual students. Who go to school in buildings, run by systems, using books and materials and taught by teachers. To invest in students requires investing in the array of people and things that enable classroom instruction to happen — in the same way that, say, investing in a child who lives in your home requires funding a safe, secure space to live in, food to eat and clothing to wear.
Does that mean you’re investing in things, not in the child itself? Sure, but they’re things for the child — and I’m a little confused by what else she thinks should go on, given that there’s not really any evidence that pinning hundred-dollar bills to a kid’s shirt results in better educational outcomes.
And yet! DeVos is the chief architect and funder of Michigan’s school choice movement, now siphoning a billion dollars a year from traditional public schools to fund charter schools and enable schools of choice — that is, traditional public schools that open enrollment to students from other geographic areas. DeVos is also an avid supporter of vouchers, which allow parents to pay private- or parochial-school tuition with tax dollars.
The theory behind unfettered choice is that traditional schools will be forced to improve once they are subjected to competition.
It does not work that way. At least, it hasn’t in Michigan, where the traditional public schools that lose funding and students to choice don’t get better — an empirical fact that that continues, it seems from Sunday’s interview, to be lost on DeVos.
I mean, education circles don’t exactly buzz about the Michigan miracle, unless our rapid drop from the middle of the middle to the bottom of the bottom on most school rankings is chat-worthy. The states most frequently discussed as places you’d like to emulate, education-wise, are Massachusetts, Florida and Tennessee. We talk a lot, here in Michigan, about being more like those states, but don’t make the kinds of investments that would lead to real improvement, which most people agree requires some form of: Picking some standards and sticking with them; training, supporting and paying teachers; understand that children have different needs and fund accordingly.
Nor was it surprising that DeVos told Stahl that she hasn’t visited those Michigan schools whose performance has plummeted as a result of the reforms she’s promoted:
A few years back, I asked DeVos’ representative if I could sit down with the future U.S. secretary of education, then just an incredibly wealthy and influential Republican megadonor, to discuss why, exactly, it is so important to her to reshape public education — particularly because the majority of the children DeVos’ preferences impact are hundreds of miles, both literally and figuratively, from Grand Rapids, the community she calls home. Her representative declined on DeVos’ behalf.
But I’d still like to know.
In the meantime, Mrs. DeVos, if you’d like to try that thing with the hundreds, I will personally meet you at any school in Detroit with a box of safety pins.
After all, it couldn’t work out more poorly than what you’ve done already.
Nancy Kaffer is a columnist with the Detroit Free Press.