Updated 6:52 PM 01/20/17:
Billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, was interviewed in a confirmation hearing on January 17th, led by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee of the US Senate. Despite multiple requests for extended time and rounds for questions, all were denied and the nominee underwent minimal questioning (one round of 5 minutes per committee member). The final vote, originally scheduled for January 24th has now been postponed to January 31st at 10am. To view the full video of the January 17th hearing, click here. To learn more about the harms of unchecked charter growth and privatization of public education, see the following collection: Charter Schools & “Choice”: A Closer Look.
According to the Center for American Progress, DeVos and her family have donated over a quarter of a million dollars alone to members of the committee tasked with vetting her nomination as well as “over $950,000 to 21 senators who will have the opportunity to vote on her confirmation”. In addition to these direct contributions, CAP reveals that “DeVos and her family also gave $2.25 million last fall to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). And the family has donated over $900,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a fundraising group for the Senate.”
Despite demands for recusal of members who had received DeVos donations, it remains to be seen whether or not any voting members will recuse themselves from the January 24th vote.
A copy of DeVos’ response to “Common Questions for Executive Branch Nominees” is publicly available and reveals extensive activity in organizations aiming to privatize public education. [For detailed analyses including links to DeVos’ opinion articles, please see Dr. Schneider’s “From the Betsy Devos Archives: Letters to the Editor and Much More“]. Evidence of the nominee’s work experience (including visual analysis of carpet swatches and floor plans) may be found on her media page, the image above, and the following post.
Although late in the process, Senators responsible for vetting and/or voting on her nomination are encouraged to ask Devos the following questions before the final vote on January 24th:
Q1. Mrs. DeVos, you have indicated in your paperwork that you chair the American Federation for Children (AFC). AFC has been identified as a “Trustee level sponsor” of the Education Task Force of ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council). However, you fail to mention ALEC by name in your response to the questions about organization membership or lobbying experience. In addition to the other organizations listed, have you personally also been involved with activities of the ALEC Education Task Force (as Board chair of AFC or otherwise)? And if so, why would you omit such activity from your responses to the Questions for Executive Branch Nominees?
Q2. To what extent have you engaged in the drafting, reviewing, or promoting of model legislation brought forth by either the AFC and/or the ALEC Education Task Force to shape policies pushing privatization, online, and/or virtual learning? To what extent did passage of such legislation lead to personal investment gains?
Q3. According to a financial disclosure form linked to the following 12/14/16 piece on the Washington Post, you held investments in K12Inc. as of December 31st, 2005. For how many years since then have you continued to hold investments in K12Inc? If you are no longer an investor in the for-profit education company, when (and why) did you choose to withdraw?
…”K12 is one of a number of education companies that have been attempting to exert influence on education policy in states. Their efforts come at a time when corporate school reformers have supported the expansion of online education for students from kindergarten through college. In Florida, for example, legislators passed a law requiring all students to take at least one online course to earn a high school diploma.
Virtual schools as a whole are often cited for poor academic performance. A 2015 national study found that students in these schools who receive no instruction from an “in-person teacher” showed academic results in math equivalent of what would be expected if a student skipped 180 days of school. The deficiency in reading was reported to be the equivalent of 72 days of school. Virtual schools and their operators say that they often cater to students who struggle in traditional settings and that results should not be expected to be the same as traditional schools.
Education Week said in a recent report:
‘Despite more than a decade of state investigations, news media reports, and research that have documented startling failures and gross mismanagement in full-time online schools, the sector — dominated by two for-profit companies — continues to expand, spreading into new states and enrolling more students. Virtual charter schools, which collectively receive more than $1 billion in taxpayer money each year, are rarely shut down.’
One big supporter of virtual education is Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire tapped by President-elect Donald Trump as his nominee for education secretary. Her husband, Dick DeVos, listed on a financial disclosure form in 2006 that he and his wife owned K12 stock. The nonprofit organization she runs, the American Federation for Children, lists K12 on its website among organizations that support school choice.
Enrollment at the schools K12 manages almost quadrupled from 2008 through 2015, according to Bloomberg, reaching more than 120,000, about one-third of students enrolled in full-time online schools.
K12 — which receives most of its funding from public funds used to pay for the virtual schools to operate — “runs effective lobbying efforts in more than 20 states,” according to Education Week. That includes Indiana, where it spent, since 2007, nearly $1 million lobbying Indiana lawmakers and donating to their campaigns and political parties since 2007.
A Mercury News investigation published in April revealed how California’s online charter schools — run by K12 — have “a dismal record of academic achievement” but have won more than $310 million in state funding over the past dozen years. In July, California’s attorney general announced that her office had reached a $168.5 million settlement with K12, and the 14 affiliated nonprofit schools known as the California Virtual Academies that it manages, over alleged violations of California’s false claims, false advertising and unfair competition laws.” [Emphasis added] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/12/14/virtual-school-operator-k12-faces-challenge-from-stockholders-demanding-transparency/
Q4. It is apparent from your record as chair of the Philanthropy Roundtable and AFC, that you are a strong proponent of blended and online learning. On what basis do you actively promote such methods, given an admitted lack of research base (even within your own organization’s report cited here and below), as well as growing evidence of harm and exploitation of children occurring with the proliferation of such methods?
Kary Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan, has issued the following statement on the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education:
“We strongly urge Congress to scrutinize the record of Betsy DeVos, who has been a staunch proponent of school vouchers, a misguided idea that diverts taxpayer dollars into private and parochial schools and perverts the bedrock American value of separation of church and state. She and her husband served as the primary fundraisers and engine for a Michigan ballot initiative –Kids First! Yes! Coalition that voters soundly rejected in 2000.
She has ardently supported the unlimited, unregulated growth of charter schools in Michigan, elevating for-profit schools with no consideration of the severe harm done to traditional public schools. She’s done this despite overwhelming evidence that proves that charters do no better at educating children than traditional public schools and serve only to exacerbate funding problems for cash-strapped public districts. We believe that all children have a right to a quality public education, and we fear that Betsy DeVos’ relentless advocacy of charter schools and vouchers betrays these principles.
We believe that all children have a right to a quality public education, and we fear that Betsy DeVos’ relentless advocacy of charter schools and vouchers betrays these principles.”
Note following the hearing:
During Chairman Alexander’s introductory segment pitching the charter sector, he cited thousands of students attending “6,800 charter schools” in the country. He failed to mention, however, the 2,200+ charter schools that have closed since 2001, fueling a churn of constant openings and closings that are extremely disruptive and damaging to communities. If one were to acknowledge the high rates of closures (including an additional several hundred within the past three years not indicated below), the sector as a whole is estimated to have a nearly 30% failure rate. Note that charters closing due to low performance also disappear from further academic comparisons so lead to an artificially inflated subset of what would be perceived to be a remaining “high performing” sector. During Senator Paul’s time for questions and comments, KIPP was lauded as one such example. For greater context about this chain, see the following subset of KIPP-related articles from the earlier Charters/”Choice” collection. The following report from the Center for Media and Democracy documents more on charter closures here:
For readers interested to learn more about the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in shaping education related legislation to promote privatization, click here or the image below to view:
Those following social media on the hearings will also be likely to hear reports of “widespread” support for Devos from education leaders from many states called the “Chiefs for Change”. For more context regarding such support, see: Corporate Interests, Pay to Play to Shape Education Policy, Reap Profits.
For more on the Betsy Devos Appointment:
On ALEC Legislation / Philanthro-capitalism
On Charter Schools / Privatization
Note: This post is authored by Roxana Marachi, Ph.D, Associate Professor of Education at San José State University. The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official positions of the CSU or SJSU.