Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Under DeVos, public schools face a real enemy

Betsy DeVos, a Michigan heiress who has fought throughout her adult life to destroy public education, will probably be confirmed as U.S. secretary of education in a Senate floor vote next week. Opponents have fought her nomination hard, and for good reason, with two Republican senators committed to joining all Democrats in opposition. But so far that seems likely to set up a 50-50 confirmation vote, with Vice President Mike Pence likely to break the tie in her favor.

To those who follow the debate in education circles, the arguments offered in DeVos' defense are very familiar. Yes, she strongly dislikes public schools. Yes, she wants to privatize the delivery of education while forcing taxpayers to continue to fund it. But as GOP Sen. John Cornyn said this week in explaining his own support for DeVos, "If people think our public education system is perfect, then I guess they don't think we need to have any changes or any choices for students and their families. I certainly think we do."

That argument is silly and insulting to its core. If you don't happen to believe that the entire system of public education should be blown up, as does DeVos, then you simply don't care about the kids and are content to see them fail? Really, those are our only two choices? We heard that very same argument in the debate here in Georgia last fall over the "Opportunity School District" concept, which would have allowed Gov. Nathan Deal to take control of poorly performing schools, stripping local leaders and voters of any say in how those schools are run.

“If we are as concerned about the minds of our children as we should be, then you will not let 68,000 students be trapped in chronically failing schools,” Deal told the voters of Georgia.

Personally, I'd frame it another way. "If we are as concerned about the minds of our children as we should be," and as Deal claims to be, then maybe we shouldn't have cut per-pupil public-school spending in Georgia by 9.8 percent between 2010 and 2014, as reported in the latest Census Bureau data. At $9,202 per student, maybe we should have been trying to move closer to the national average of $11,000 per pupil instead of moving in the other direction. We now rate 38th in the nation in that inflation-adjusted metric and slipping, according to the Census Bureau, now trailing states such as Alabama and Arkansas.

I know I know: "You can't improve education by throwing more money at it." It's a funny thing, though: If we need to improve transportation, then we need to spend a lot more money on it. If we feel the need to bolster national defense, then we need to spend a LOT more money on it, even though we already spend more than twice as much as Russia and China combined. If you want to upgrade your car or house, you will expect to pay more money for it. If we want to attract better coaches and athletes so our favorite college football team can compete nationally, we are told to spend a lot more money on salaries and facilities.

In all of American life, it is only public education where that relationship between resources and outcomes supposedly breaks down. And again, maybe it's me, but if you're publicly demanding better and better performance from a company, individual or institution, while reducing the resources available to do, I'm going to suspect that you may be setting them up for failure.

It gets even more strange when you hear DeVos, Deal and others try to tell us that they want to give poor public-school students access to the same kind of education available to more affluent private-school students. Who could be opposed to that? Well, DeVos, Deal and others are opposed to that. Tuition and other costs at a top private school such as Westminster here in Atlanta now reach $27,000 a year, and nobody, and I mean nobody, proposes to hand out taxpayer-financed school vouchers of $27,000 a year or anything approaching that.

And by the way, with every tuition check that they write, the affluent parents of those private-school students are providing us with irrefutable, market-based evidence that in their minds at least, more money does indeed buy a better education.

We can also look to Georgia's own poorly disguised school-voucher program, its Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit, to gauge outcome and intent. Under the program, individuals and corporations that owe taxes to the state can instead contribute a like amount to private-school scholarship programs, a revenue diversion justified by the familiar claim that those programs give poverty-stricken students an escape route out of poor schools.

But for the most part, they don't.

According to the most recent state data, families from the poorest 25 percent of Georgia households are the least likely economic group to benefit from those scholarships; a substantial majority of those scholarships go to households with above-average income. Overall, the program is a sham through which upper-middle-class students get their private-school tuition subsidized by the taxpayers in the name of helping the poor, while the poor themselves get little help.

And then there's the matter of accountability. Talk to public school teachers and administrators and you'll hear endless stories of reports and forms and standardized testing and other requirements imposed on them by state officials in the name of ensuring that public dollars are well-spent. Huge amounts of their time and energy are consumed in meeting those demands. Yet the private schools that benefit from the taxpayer-subsidized voucher program have no such disclosure requirements or oversight. We don't know their graduation rates, their standardized test scores, their curriculum, nothing, and without that data we have no way of comparing their educational outcomes to those of public school students. And every effort to change that has been met with rejection.

That's also the case in Michigan, where the DeVos family has used its incredible wealth to create hundreds of privately run, publicly funded schools with almost no oversight, transparency and accountabililty. (Roughly 80 percent of the charter schools in the state are private, for-profit institutions.) If you set up a system in which every failure in the public-school system is fodder for headlines and criticism, while the failures of the publicly funded but privately run schools are kept secret, I again have to wonder whether you are consciously setting the public-school system up to be perceived as a failure.

If DeVos is indeed confirmed as education secretary, it's going to be fascinating to watch what happens. Conservatives have complained for decades about the very existence of a federal Department of Education, arguing that the feds have no appropriate role in state and local education decisions. Under a crusader such as DeVos, however, that same federal authority is now likely to be wielded as a weapon against public education all across the country, with potentially disastrous consequences.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.