Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, is an advocate of school choice initiatives such as vouchers and charter schools. Sarah Lubienski, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois, is an expert on educational equity, including school reform and mathematics achievement. Lubienski spoke recently with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about the possible future of public schools under the Trump administration.
How are educators and education scholars reacting to Trump’s nomination of DeVos for education secretary?
Education scholars and practitioners have voiced many concerns about what this will mean for education at all levels.
DeVos is a billionaire from Michigan and a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. She has a history of education policy advocacy but little to no hands-on experience with public schools. She never attended public schools, sent her children to them or worked in a public school.
Still, DeVos has spent the past two decades promoting privatization of schooling in various ways, including charter schools and vouchers that students can use toward private-school tuition.
In terms of higher education, there are concerns that DeVos will be more supportive of private postsecondary institutions than public universities, but time will tell.
On the campaign trail, Trump was highly critical of the U.S. public education system and advocated a number of reforms, such as reallocating $20 billion in federal funds to state block grants for school vouchers. If implemented, how might this plan affect public schools?
Trump’s idea of using $20 billion of federal funds to support vouchers is well-aligned with DeVos’ agenda. However, the extent to which she will succeed in getting Congress to divert money from Title I and other programs remains to be seen. Twenty billion dollars is a whopping 28 percent of the Department of Education’s entire budget, which supports pre-kindergarten through postsecondary education. Trump’s plan relies on states contributing even more funds to make the program viable.
For this plan to succeed, money would be diverted from neighborhood public schools to private or charter schools. The program could leave public schools underenrolled and undersupported, with cuts to programs that enhance the education of our poorest students.
In addition to facing potential challenges from Congress, DeVos is likely to meet resistance at the local and state levels. Some states’ constitutions forbid the use of taxpayer money for private schooling.
Under a Trump/DeVos administration, what changes might we expect to see to initiatives such as Common Core, Title I and the Every Student Succeeds Act?
While it seems likely that DeVos will try to divert funds away from Title I, it is less clear what she will do with Common Core or ESSA. Based on her history, DeVos may put more effort into circumventing public schools (through choice programs) rather than strive to make public schools better.
She has not been a vocal supporter or critic of Common Core or ESSA, so at least in the short term dismantling those programs may be low on her priority list. And Common Core has really been a state-level rather than federal initiative. Still, we might see her try to promote her choice agenda through legislation tied to a revision of ESSA.
DeVos was the co-architect of the charter school system implemented in Detroit – which some education experts have called a disaster. What went wrong?
The Detroit schools have had their share of struggles over the past decades, many of which cannot be pinned on DeVos. Still, DeVos has been a vigilant promoter of the expansion of charter schools in Detroit, along with pushing deregulation as a way to free those schools to pursue innovative ideas.
However, student performance in those Detroit charter schools has not panned out quite as DeVos and other reformers hoped. Critics note that the main impact of those charters has been to further drain students and resources away from Detroit’s struggling public schools.
Does choice guarantee better quality education?
The research I did with my husband, Chris Lubienski (currently a faculty member at Indiana University), suggests that – contrary to popular belief – private and charter schools are not better than public schools.
In our book “The Public School Advantage” (University of Chicago Press, 2013), our analyses of two large national datasets indicate that students in public elementary schools actually learn more math than their demographically similar peers in private schools.
Our research reveals that while public school teachers are required to stay up to date with instructional improvements and changing curriculum standards; this is less true in private schools. Private schools are free to hire noncertified teachers and use outdated approaches, such as having young students sit in rows while learning math.
These differences in governance and instruction provide an advantage for public school students when it comes to achievement.
Overall, our research challenges assumptions about the superiority of private schools, which is the basis for Trump’s $20 billion idea.