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DeVos Confirmed: Everything They Said about Her Is False by James Agresti

Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as Secretary of Education, but just barely. In the course of the hearings, outrageous claims were made about her views. Most originated from the public school industry itself, which is clinging to old forms for dear life. The result has been nothing but confusion. Let’s look more carefully.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) alleges that she is voting against Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education because:

  • DeVos opposes policies that allow “our young people, all of them, to participate in our democracy and compete on a fair footing in the workforce.”
  • DeVos supports “voucher systems that divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools without requirements for accountability.”
  • “The voucher programs that Ms. DeVos advocates leave out students whose families cannot afford to pay the part of the tuition that the voucher does not cover; the programs also leave behind students with disabilities because the schools do not accommodate their complex needs.”

Each of those claims is belied by concrete facts, and Hassan is guilty of most of the charges she levels at DeVos. Also, Hassan sent her own daughter to a private school, an opportunity that she would deny to other children.

A Fair Footing

Under the current U.S. education system, the quality of students’ schooling is largely determined by their parents’ income. This is because wealthy parents can afford to send their children to private schools and live in neighborhoods with the best public schools. Such options narrow as income declines, and the children of poor families—who are often racial minorities—typically end up in the nation’s worst schools.

Contrary to popular perception, funding is not the primary cause of differences between schools. Since the early 1970s, school districts with large portions of minority students have spent about the same amount per student as districts with fewer minorities. This is shown by studies conducted by the left-leaning Urban Institute, the U.S. Department of Education, Ph.D. economist Derek Neal, and the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Moreover, contrary to the notion that certain minorities are intellectually inferior, empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that with competent schooling, people of all races can excel. For example, in 2009, Public School 172 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York, had:

  • a mostly Hispanic population.
  • one-third of the students not fluent in English and no bilingual classes.
  • 80% of the students poor enough to qualify for free lunch.
  • lower spending per student than the New York City average.
  • the highest average math score of all fourth graders in New York City, with 99% of the students scoring “advanced.”
  • the top-dozen English scores of all fourth graders in New York City, with 99% of students passing.

These and other such results indicate that school quality plays a major role in student performance. Hassan and other critics of school choice are keenly aware of this, as evidenced by the choices they make for their own children. For example, Obama’s first Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, stated that the primary reason he decided to live in Arlington, Virginia, was so his daughter could attend its public schools. In his words:

That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn’t want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.

Duncan’s statement is an admission that public schools in the D.C. area often jeopardize the education of children, but he would not let this happen to his child. Few parents have the choice that Duncan made because most cannot afford to live in places like Arlington, where the annual cash income of the median family is $144,843, the highest of all counties in the United States.

Other prominent opponents of private school choice—like Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton—personally attended and also sent their own children to private K-12 schools. Likewise, Hassan’s daughter attended an elite private high school (Phillips Exeter Academy) where Hassan’s husband was the principal.

The existing U.S. education system does not provide an equal footing for children, but Hassan criticizes DeVos for supporting school choice, which would lessen this inequity. By its very definition, school choice allows parents to select the schools their children attend, an option that Hassan and other affluent people regularly exercise.

Taxpayer Money and Accountability

Four lines of evidence disprove Hassan’s claim that DeVos wants to “divert taxpayer dollars” to non-public schools “without requirements for accountability.”

First, private school choice generally increases public school spending per student, which is the primary measure of education funding. As explained by Stephen Cornman, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, per-pupil spending is “the gold standard in school finance.”

Private school choice programs boost per-student funding in public schools because the public schools no longer educate the students who go to the private schools, which typically spend much less per student than public schools. This leaves additional funding for the students who remain in public schools.

According to the latest available data, the average spending per student in private K-12 schools during the 2011-12 school year was about $6,762. In the same year, the average spending per student in public schools was $13,398, or about twice as much. These figures exclude state administration spending, unfunded pension liabilities, and post-employment benefits like healthcare—all of which are common in public schools and rare in private ones.

Certain school costs like building maintenance are fixed in the short term, and thus, the savings of educating fewer students occurs in steps. This means that private school choice can temporarily decrease the funding per student in some public schools, but this is brief and slight because only 8% of public school spending is for operations and maintenance.

Second, school choice provides the most direct form of accountability, which is accountability to students and parents. With school choice, if parents are unhappy with any school, they have the ability to send their children to other schools. This means that every school is accountable to every parent.Under the current public education system, schools are accountable to government officials, not students and parents. Again, Hassan knows this, because her son has severe disabilities, and Hassan used her influence as a lawyer to get her son’s public elementary school to “accommodate his needs.”

Unlike Hassan, people without a law degree, extra time on their hands, or ample financial resources are at the mercy of politicians and government employees. Short of legal action or changing an election outcome, most children and parents are stuck with their public schools, regardless of whether they are effective or safe. That is precisely the situation that DeVos would like to fix through school choice, but Hassan talks as if DeVos were trying to do the opposite.

Third, taxpayer funds are commonly used for private schools, and Hassan actually wants more of this. Her campaign website states that she “will fight to expand Pell Grants” but fails to reveal that these are often used for private colleges like, for example, Brown University, the Ivy League school that she, her husband, and her daughter attended (disclosure: so did this author).

In other words, Hassan supports using taxpayer money for top students to attend elite private universities, but she opposes the same opportunity for poor students to attend private K-12 schools.

Hassan’s position on college aid also undercuts her objection that DeVos supports programs that “leave out students whose families cannot afford to pay the part of the tuition that the voucher does not cover.” If that were truly Hassan’s objection, she would also oppose aid that doesn’t cover the full costs of every college, because that would leave out students who can’t pay the rest of the tuition.

Fourth, contrary to Hassan’s rhetoric about accountability to taxpayers, she supports current spending levels in public K-12 schools, “debt-free public college for all,” and expanding “early childhood education” in spite of the facts that:

  • the U.S. spends an average of 31% more per K-12 student than other developed nations, but 15-year olds in the U.S. rank 31st among 35 nations in math.
  • federal, state, and local governments spend about $900 billion per year on formal education, but only 18% of U.S. residents aged 16 and older can correctly answer a word problem requiring the ability to search text, interpret it, and calculate using multiplication and division.
  • the average spending per public school classroom is $286,000 per year, but only 26% of the high school students who take the ACT exam meet its college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects (English, reading, math, and science).
  • federal, state and local governments spend $173 billion per year on higher education, but 80% of first-time, full-time students who enroll in a public community college do not receive a degree from the college within 150% of the normal time required to do so.
  • 4-year public colleges spend an average of $40,033 per year for each full-time student, but one-third of students who graduate from 4-year colleges don’t improve their “critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving, and writing” skills by more than one percentage point over their entire college careers.
  • the federal government funds dozens of preschool programs, and the largest —Head Start—spends an average of $8,772 per child per year, but it produces no measurable benefit by the time students reach 3rd grade.

In sum, Hassan supports pumping taxpayer money into programs with high costs and substandard outcomes, but she opposes doing the same for private K–12 schools that produce better outcomes with far less cost.

Left Behind?

Hassan’s claim that private school choice programs “leave behind students with disabilities because the schools do not accommodate their complex needs” is also false.

In Northern and Central New Jersey, there are more than 30 private special education schools that are approved by the state. As far as parents are concerned, these schools serve the needs of their children better than the public schools in their areas. If this were not the case, these private schools would not exist.

More importantly, if parents don’t think that a private school will be best for their special needs child, school choice allows them to keep the child in a public school that is better-funded thanks to the money saved by school choice.

In a recent brief to the Nevada Supreme Court, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, and its state affiliate argue that free-market voucher programs will lead to “cream-skimming—the drawing away of the most advantaged students to private schools––and lead to a highly stratified system of education.”

As detailed above, the current public school system is highly stratified by income, and income and education go hand in hand. Hence, the real issue is not stratification but what happens to students who stay in public schools. Contrary to the belief that school choice will harm these students, a mass of evidence shows the opposite.

At least 21 high-quality studies have been performed on the academic outcomes of students who remain in public schools that are subject to school choice programs. All but one found neutral-to-positive results, and none found negative results. This is consistent with the theory that school choice stimulates competition that induces public schools to improve.

Who Wins and Who Loses?

Wide-ranging facts prove that school choice is a win for students, parents, and taxpayers. However, it financially harms teachers unions by depriving them of dues, because private schools are less likely to have unions than public ones.

In turn, this financially harms Democratic politicians, political action committees, and related organizations, which have received about $200 million in reported donations from the two largest teachers’ unions since 1990. Unions also give many unreported donations to Democratic Party causes.

Teachers’ unions are firmly opposed to private school choice, and the National Education Association has sent an open letter to Democrats stating that “opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.”

So why does Hassan oppose giving other children opportunities that she gave to her own children? Motives are difficult to divine, but the reasons she gave in her op-ed are at odds with verifiable facts and her own actions.

James Agresti

James Agresti

James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a nonprofit institute dedicated to publishing verifiable facts about public policy.

RELATED ARTICLE: Bill to Shut U.S. Education Department Introduced in Congress

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Profiting Off of the Children by CATHY REISENWITZ

Writing at Salon, David Sirota is horrified that capitalists are supposedly making money off school choice initiatives. Amazon and Microsoft prompted the horror by contributing to a recent campaign to expand school choice in Seattle. Sirota is convinced that the companies are giving because “lucrative education technology contracts” are “much easier to land in privately run charter schools because such schools are often uninhibited by public schools’ procurement rules and standards requiring a demonstrable educational need for technology.”

Last year Microsoft alone raked in $77 billion in revenue. Seattle’s public school system is set to spend $6 million on tech upgrades. Bill Gates alone spent $2 million on the initiative. In no universe does the math work out that Gates and Amazon are promoting school choice to make money.

What’s much more likely is that these companies are sick and tired of the public education monopoly’s horrifying results—especially for poor and minority students.

School choice programs consistently produce similar or better results for much less money.

Voucher programs offer significantly higher levels of high-school graduation and college matriculation, with private schools achieving better results at about half the cost per pupil.

2009 review of the global research literature found that every study to measure efficiency in education returned a statistically significant positive result for markets.

Perhaps that’s why polling data shows strong support for vouchers among Latino voters. In fact, a large number of minority families are entering charter school lotteries and more than 500,000 students are on charter waiting lists nationally. Even President Obama likes the concept of school choice. He’s spoken well of charter schools while spending millions in federal funds to expand them in minority communities.

The problem of public education money misspent on technology is a serious one, and Sirota is right to make an issue of it. But Sirota’s distrust of the profit motive causes him to miss the solution. Rather than use arcane procurement rules to attempt to force schools to spend wisely, simply look at expenditures versus results—you know, like Microsoft and Amazon do. School choice means that schools that waste money on useless toys will lose students, while smart spending schools will gain them.

Rather than an attempt to grab “lucrative” contracts, it’s much more likely that Microsoft and Amazon are applying what they have learned in the marketplace, that competition and choice spur innovation, which improves products and services. They want to apply those forces to education. If only critics like Sirota could do the same.

ABOUT CATHY REISENWITZ

Cathy Reisenwitz is an Associate at Young Voices and Editor-in-Chief of Sex and the State. She will be speaking at the FEE summer seminar “Are Markets Just? Exploring the Social Significance of a Free Economy“.

EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is courtesy of FEE and Shutterstock.

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FL Rep. Manny Diaz offers Trapped Students a Way Out of Failed Schools

Students in Florida that are trapped in failing and/or troubled schools may have new hope on the horizon.

The various misdeeds of the Miami-Dade School District, and the events that took place at Miami Norland Senior High School, in the aftermath of Adobegate makes the case for an upcoming House Bill concerning charter schools being sponsored by Rep. Manny Diaz.

An aspect of this bill, co-location, has unions up in arms about this legislation, but as a whistleblowing union steward who desires reform, I am for it and view co-location and competition as a viable remedy to reform the Miami-Dade School District, and other Florida school districts, for the better.

Simply put, co-location is the sharing of public school space by both charter and public schools, sometimes on the same school campus.

In Florida, charter schools are under the supervision of county school boards but privately managed.  As schools and school districts are very unwilling to reform themselves in terms of clean ethical governance, co-location makes perfect sense and just may force schools like Miami Norland SHS and districts like Miami-Dade to clean up their act, especially in the areas of compliance with professional development procedures, teacher observation and evaluation improprieties, test cheating, and treatment of whistleblowers for the betterment of the students they purport to serve.

A well-run charter school on the same campus as a poorly run public school akin to Norland would force the Norland’s of the state to change their ways and shape up, or the school districts that supervise them to clean them up, or else risk losing their students to the charter school on site as parents would have a viable alternative to an inadequate public school option.

During the 2011-2012 school year, two vocational teachers at Miami Norland SHS, Mr. Emmanuel Fleurantin and Mrs. Brenda Muchnick, and most likely persons unknown, engaged in massive test cheating on two Adobe industrial arts certification exams, hence of Adobegate.

With the assistance of cheating, undertaken by Mr. Emmanuel Fleurantin and Mrs. Brenda Muchnick, Miami Norland’s school grade went from a “C” for the 2010-11 school year to an “A” for the 2011-12 school year.

As a result, total federal funds (SIG, RTTT) given out due to a grade influenced by cheating was $100,560; the total state funds per FSRP was between $130,000- $140,000; the total overall combined federal and state incentive funds were $230,560- $240,560.

Each teacher at Miami Norland Senior High School received $1730.41 from all three payouts.

This affair is detailed in the Miami-Dade OIG Final Report and the Department of Administrative Hearings brief, issued by the School Board Attorney on January 8, 2014, justifying Mr. Fleurantin’s termination.

During the following school year, 2012-2013, Miami Norland SHS led the state in FCAT invalidations due to cheating with 13 student exams being invalidated.

The response by school district administration has been outrageous and unjust: Mr. Fleurantin, a black union member, has been suspended pending termination while Mrs. Muchnick, a white non-union member, received a slap on the wrist for the same offense from the same cheating scandal and is back working at Norland.

When one reads the Miami-Dade OIG Final Report and the Department of Administrative Hearings brief, one can reasonably conclude that Mrs. Muchnick is equally culpable and a reasonable person would think her employment was up for termination as well.

For my efforts, I as the whistleblowing union steward suffered an attempted transfer and a bogus CRC complaint devoid of merit (dismissed later) in September and an actual involuntary transfer on October 24, 2013, followed by another on December 10, 2013.

To make matters worse, my award winning library program has been closed since my departure, in violation of state law, and the students have not had library media services since then.

A Norland employee told me a week ago that students have been complaining about being unable to access library books, and one acted up.

Too bad the faculty, which apparently seems to care about their bottom line and financial incentives gained from cheating more so than their students, does not speak up about this injustice and defend the students’ right to read.

Whether the Norland faculty is silent due to complicity or cowardice, to quote Barbara Bush, a reasonable person may conclude “they are a sorry bunch.”

Sadly, Norland SHS is under the leadership of a principal who has two prior ethics complaints successfully processed against him by the FLDOE. Mr. Lee is a principal who has threatened me twice with retaliation (documented in grievances) in May 2010 and February 2013; a principal who has fabricated my observation and been caught doing so in a meeting on April 4, 2012; and a principal who has undertaken various forms of adverse action, in concert with the other union stewards and District officials, against me since late August 2013 for my efforts in trying to clean up the school.

As a parent of a Miami Norland SHS student, why would you leave your child to languish in what a fair-minded person may conclude are the clutches and the bad influences of Mrs. Muchnick, Mr. Lee, and a faculty that apparently could care less for your child when you can give them a better environment and educational opportunities on the same school grounds under the bill sponsored by Rep. Diaz?

Rep. Diaz’s bill preserves the concept of neighborhood schools and gives the parents and students of Florida trapped in similar situations throughout the state a way out.

If these events have transpired at Miami Norland SHS, and they have, you can believe that they have transpired (or are transpiring) at other schools throughout Florida.

Districts like Miami-Dade and schools like Norland SHS feel entitled to public funds and in their arrogance rails against those who expose test cheating, which leads to better school grades and enhanced funding, and other frauds while the state simply passes the buck and declines to take action.

Rep. Diaz’s bill would curtail the “business as usual” environment as parents would have the means to place their child in a better educational, and ethical, environment.

Unions and public education advocates have decried the fact that Rep. Diaz is in charge of this bill, but it is phony outrage as they have plenty of advocates in the Legislature that have significantly influenced educational bills over the past few years: Sen. Bill Montford, who is the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and former superintendent of Leon County Public Schools; Sen. Don Gaetz and Nancy Detert, former public school superintendents; as well as teachers in both chambers, namely Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami-Dade teacher and a UTD member.

Critics decry Rep. Diaz’s involvement as a conflict of interest.

So he is a legislator with a passion for education reform that embraces charter schools; how is that different from Sen. Montford’s or Sen. Bullard’s passion for public education and the bills that they propose and support?

As with traditional public education, charter schools are deserving of advocates as well in the Legislature. The purpose of representation is to serve all the interests of everyone in the state encompassing all races and ethnicities.

The legislation proposed by Rep. Diaz will receive, as with any legislation, intense scrutiny in the appropriate House committee as well as the House floor as well as the appropriate Senate committee and Senate floor when it arrives there.

What really scares unions and traditional public education advocates, as well as school districts and the Norland’s of the state, is that they cannot continue on the same path collecting taxpayer dollars as they go with little oversight and with no accountability as it is on the horizon.