File Photo: Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol...
YURI GRIPAS

Education Secretary DeVos makes the wrong case for 'school choice'

After a deeply contentious confirmation process, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos began her tenure at a deficit. It was therefore important that the Republican megadonor/cabinet secretary quickly take steps to appear credible and qualified.

That's not working out well. As we discussed last week, DeVos has faced a variety of protests, and like much of the Trump administration, she believes it's best to dismiss her critics as being part of a conspiracy against her, asserting without proof that the protests are "all being sponsored and very carefully planned." Soon after, the Education Secretary conceded that she's still not sure her position or her cabinet agency should exist.

This morning, DeVos made matters much worse, issuing a statement following a White House meeting with presidents and chancellors of historically black colleges and universities. She said:

"Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) ... started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn't working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.

"HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish."

No. No, no, no. For crying out loud, no. As a Slate piece noted, DeVos issued a statement that effectively "celebrates legal segregation on the grounds that the Jim Crow education system gave black students 'more options,' as if there was a robust competition between HBCUs and white universities for their patronage."

Looking at the statement in the most charitable way possible, DeVos' ignorance is simply astounding. The founders of historically black colleges and universities didn't look at the education landscape and see a system that "wasn't working"; they saw racist institutions that comprised a system in which students of color faced overt discrimination.

The schools "worked" just fine as institutions of higher learning. Black students simply weren't allowed to attend. As the New York Times' Farhad Manjoo put it, "To paint historically black colleges as pioneers of 'school choice' is like saying the Montgomery bus boycott was a transportation startup."

Of course, the context for all of this matters. DeVos could've met with the leaders of historically black colleges and universities, issued a polite and anodyne statement, and moved on, but the far-right Education Secretary has a lens through which all news must travel. She's determined to privatize America's public schools, so after meeting the HBCU chiefs, her first question is, "How can I use this brief, perfunctory gathering to advance my broader ideological agenda?"

This, evidently, is what she came up with.

As for the underlying policy debate, when DeVos refers to "school choice," what she means is a system in which students receive a taxpayer-funded voucher that can go towards tuition at parochial and other private schools. It is, as the New York Times reported last week, a system that's been tried in many areas throughout the United States, which has routinely failed.

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education was a signal moment for the school choice movement. For the first time, the nation's highest education official is someone fully committed to making school vouchers and other market-oriented policies the centerpiece of education reform.

But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling -- the worst in the history of the field, researchers say. [...]

When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It's rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana "as large as any I've seen in the literature" -- not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

I'd like to hear more from Betsy DeVos in response to this overwhelming evidence, but I have a hunch her reaction would do more harm than good.