From 1991 to 1993, I worked for Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. I was Assistant Secretary in charge of the Office of Education Research and Improvement and also Counselor to the Secretary of Education. Lamar Alexander is now Senator from Tennessee and Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), which is evaluating the qualifications of Betsy DeVos to be U.S. Secretary of Education.
I hope you don’t mind my taking the liberty of writing you a public letter.
I was just reading your book of sayings, the Little Plaid Book. For those who don’t know, this is your book of “311 rules, lessons, and reminders about running for office and making a difference whether it’s for president of the United States or president of your senior class.”
The main lesson of the book for me is that you should be honest with people. You shouldn’t bore them. You shouldn’t lecture them or try to impress them. You should get to know them, listen to them, respect their concerns, and try to understand their problems.
Rule 151 is very important at this time in our national life. It says, “When stumped for an answer, ask yourself, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ Then do it.”
Rule 168 says, “Read whatever Diane Ravitch writes about education.” It doesn’t say that anyone should agree with what I write, it just says you should read it.
So I am writing you this letter in hopes that you will read it and that I can persuade you to do the right thing.
When I worked for you in the early 1990s in the Department of Education, I absorbed important lessons about character and ethics in public life. You were a model of dignity, integrity, and respect for others. You never raised your voice. You smiled and laughed often. You were always well informed. You picked the best person for whatever job was open.
Now you are in the position of selecting a new Secretary of Education. I watched the hearings, and it was evident to all but the most extreme partisans that Ms. DeVos is unqualified, unprepared, and unfit for the responsibility of running this important agency.
When asked direct questions about important federal issues, she was noncommittal or evasive or displayed her ignorance. She thinks that the Individuals with Disabilities Act should be left up to the states to decide whether or not to comply; she does not know it is a federal law and is not optional. When asked about higher education, she was stumped. She was unfamiliar with the terminology of education issues.
Her lack of experience leaves her ill-equipped to address the needs of the vast majority of America’s schools. I understand that she doesn’t like public schools and much prefers religious schools and privately managed charter schools, including those that operate for-profit.
Frankly, it is unprecedented for a Secretary of Education to disapprove of public schools. At least eighty-five percent of American school children attend public schools. She has no ideas about how to improve public schools. Her only idea is that students should enroll in nonpublic schools.
She would be the first Secretary of Education in our history to be hostile to public education. I have written extensively about the history of public education and how important it is to our democracy. It seems strange to return to the early 19th century, when children attended religious schools, charity schools, charter schools, were home-schooled, or had no education at all. This is not “reform.” This is backsliding. This is wiping out nearly two centuries of hard-won progress towards public schools that enroll boys and girls, children of all races and cultures, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English. We have been struggling to attain equality of educational opportunity; we are still far from it. School choice promotes segregation and would take us further away from our national goal.
Since Michigan embraced the DeVos family’s ideas about choice, Michigan has steadily declined on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
In 2003, Michigan ranked 28th among the states in fourth-grade reading; the latest results, in 2015, showed that Michigan had dropped to 41st.
In 2003, Michigan ranked 27th in fourth- grade math; by 2015, it had declined to 42nd among the states.
Michigan has hundreds of charter schools. 80% of them are run by for-profit operators. The Detroit Free Press conducted a one-year review of the charter sector and concluded it was a $1 billion a year industry that operated without accountability or transparency and that did not produce better results than public schools. When the legislature tried to develop accountability standards for the charter industry in June 2016, Ms. DeVos successfully lobbied to block the legislation.
Detroit is awash in charters and few of them perform as well as the public schools. Detroit is the lowest rated urban district in the nation on the NAEP.
As for vouchers, there have been many state referenda over the past 20 years, and the voters have rejected them every time, usually by large margins. When Ms. DeVos and her husband Richard led a movement to change the Michigan state constitution to permit vouchers for religious schools in the year 2000, the referendum was defeated by 69-31%. Even in deep red Utah, the public rejected vouchers overwhelmingly in 2007. Florida was the last state to reject vouchers, in a 2012 vote deceptively named the Religious Freedom Act; it was defeated by 58-42%.
Time and again, the American public has said that they don’t want public money to be spent in religious schools.
We have experience and evidence about vouchers, which have been imposed by legislatures, not by popular vote. Milwaukee, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia offer vouchers, and these districts are among the lowest performing in the nation on national tests. Milwaukee and Cleveland have had vouchers for more than 20 years, and neither district has seen any improvement in its public schools, nor do the voucher schools outperform the public schools. When the taxpayers’ precious dollars are divided among two or three sectors, none of them flourishes.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, which you worked so hard to produce in a bipartisan spirit, goes a long way towards devolving control of education to states. I, of course, would have liked to see the elimination of the federal mandate for annual testing, which has proven to be ineffective for 15 years.
But the best way to enable ESSA to work is to appoint a Secretary of Education who comes to the job with knowledge, experience, and a commitment to let districts and states nurture better ideas than those imposed by Washington.
With kind regards and great respect,