Skip to content Skip to footer

School Choice Is Not Serving the Most Disenfranchised

CounterSpin interviews Kevin Kumashiro on Betsy DeVos.

Truthout Logo

Janine Jackson: There were near-countless causes for concern about the appointment of deep-pocketed Republican Betsy DeVos as secretary of Education. She’s given money to 17 of the senators voting on her. She’s never taught or had her children in public school. She seemed to know little about core educational issues, like the debate over measuring students’ proficiency versus their growth, or whether or not the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act is a federal law. In the end, her line about needing guns in schools for grizzly bears might be the least worrisome thing about her. Yet here we are.

It’s been said that the Education secretary has less day-to-day power than other agency heads. But what does the DeVos appointment represent in terms of this administration’s potential impact on children and schools, and how do we fight for a different vision? Kevin Kumashiro is the former dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, and founder of Education Deans for Justice and Equity. He’s the author of the book Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. He joins us now by phone from California. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Kevin Kumashiro.

Kevin Kumashiro: Janine, thanks so much for having me.

I think it’s fair to raise concern about DeVos’s lack of classroom experience, but I can imagine someone who has never taught who nevertheless understood what teachers do. As with other Trump appointments, it seems like it’s not a matter of DeVos not being the “best” person; the problem is she represents a position that’s opposed to the mission of the department. Is that fair to say, do you think?

I think that’s very fair to say. I mean, I think in so many instances, having outsider perspectives can be very helpful, so I agree it’s not about whether or not she herself has taught, although that would be very helpful if she had. It’s more about what is her vision for public education, and what is her track record that shows what she’s already done and where she’s likely to take public education.

And the Department of Education was created in a time when the federal government was leveraging the little money that it has in public education — well, little in terms of the percentage, right? The federal government accounts for only about 10 percent of public school funding. But, you know, it’s a $600 billion-a-year enterprise nationally. There’s lots of money to be made in public education.

So the federal government for several decades, from the ’50s through the ’80s, was actually exerting more and more influence, to try to make public schools address diversity, equity and injustices. That was the hallmark of the string of legislation that came through the federal government that culminated, in 1979, in the creation of the Department of Education.

So if we’re now saying that the role of the federal government is not to advance issues of equity, diversity and social justice, but rather to fuel the privatizing and the dismantling of public education, then that absolutely is a big shift from historically where it’s been going, and a big shift from what should be its primary role in schooling.

Well, yes, having people in charge of agencies that they don’t think should exist is a special kind of confusing, including for people who have to report on it. But what we get are sort of arguments about ideas and then a lot of buzzwords, and “school choice,” like “accountability,” is a great buzzword. And taking off from what you’ve just been saying about the original intent of the whole department, school choice is being presented as, in particular, a way for students of color and poor kids to access the great equalizer that is education. You know, wealthy kids presumably already have school choice. I find the cynicism of Betsy DeVos professing to care about poor black and brown children almost unbearable. But, first of all, no one says some charter schools haven’t helped some kids, right? But we have data here, and if it’s kids that we care about, those data just don’t support a shift of resources away from public schools.

Oh, absolutely. When we talk about the track record of Betsy DeVos, we should look at Michigan, because it’s in Michigan where she leveraged millions of dollars to rapidly expand the creation of charter schools, at the same time that she pushed for legislation that would deregulate, in other words that would lessen the oversight of charter schools. And particularly in Detroit, this is what we saw, right, a proliferation of charter schools with far less oversight.

And are we seeing the gaps in achievement and attainment being closed? Well, absolutely not. Even proponents of school choice are saying that the very expensive experiment in Detroit was a failure. And the test scores show it as well, right? In Michigan, schools have seen what’s called the nation’s report card, the NAEP score, the test scores actually go down in the short time that she has been leading the reforms. It is not the case that school choice is serving the most disenfranchised.

I like to point out the irony that when we talk about a democracy, of course freedom of choice is a very big part of that, conceptually. But within the realm of education, we very narrowly define what we mean by school choice. It is often a way to move funding around. And who benefits the most? It’s actually not those who struggle the most. It tends to be those who already have access, who already have privilege, who know how to work the system. School choice is not proving to be a savior. And if that’s the singular focus of this secretary, then we have a really big problem. We need to be looking at the bigger picture, we need a more complex understanding of the system, and that’s not what we’re seeing yet with this new secretary.

People may be somewhat starved for silver linings right now, but I have seen a number of people saying that they’re grateful that there was such a big fight around Betsy DeVos. One piece said “Americans don’t usually get this worked up about education,” which I’m not sure is really true. But it is true that power over schools is more decentralized in some ways than some other areas, and there are more points for potential involvement. But I wonder, going forward, do you see something that we can use from the argument that we’ve been having over her appointment?

Yeah. Let me make two points, one is kind of historical and then one is moving forward. Historically, I think we need to remind ourselves that both Democrats and Republicans have brought us to where we are right now. Right? In the last administration, under President Obama and the secretaries Arne Duncan and John King, they were moving us towards things like narrowly defining “standards” and “accountability,” fueling the growth of school choice and of privatizing and marketizing school systems. So the kind of thing that we’re talking about, that Betsy DeVos has pushed in Michigan, is actually building on the history that we’ve led ourselves to over the past three and a half decades. So both sides are to blame for bringing us to this point. And I think when we hold our leaders accountable, let’s hold everyone accountable for the failures of past so-called reforms and for coming up with much bolder visions for what schools should look like that are based in research.

I think moving forward, one of the entry points for activism is that in this moment, as you’ve pointed out, we have moved towards more decentralization. When the federal government reauthorized the very big education law, called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — it was first created in 1965, it was reauthorized just last December — when they reauthorized it, one of the really big, important changes they made was they weakened the federal government. And this was because both Democrats and Republicans were so unhappy with the move, under particularly the Obama administration, to hoist even more testing and even more decision-making based on those tests, which is what we call high-stakes testing. Even more high-stakes testing was happening, to a point where our kids — everyone knew they were being overtested, and there wasn’t really much gains from that.

So as a result we rewrote the law, and we weakened the ability of the federal government to push states. Why is this a problem? Because we first created that law in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, in the midst of the War on Poverty, to force states and school districts to address issues of equity and diversity in their school systems. We’ve weakened the federal government, which strengthens the states and locals. What we need to recognize, then, is that our organizing really needs to target the locals and the states.

So it is an interesting time that she’s coming in, right when we have this new law. And I think activists need to be mindful of, there is a role that the federal government plays, but there’s also very significant roles that the state and local governments play in education. We need to learn how the system works and target our activism towards that.

To your point about there being a lot of pre-existing groundwork, if you will, for this moment, the Chicago Tribune endorsed Betsy DeVos because, they said, she reminded them of Arne Duncan. So there are people who see the record and they’re okay with it.

But bigger picture, I wonder if media’s overall framing is less than helpful. There’s a picture of key players, and that’s teachers, which kind of really means unions, and there’s parents and then there’s “reformers,” and it’s supposedly a kind of a power tug-of-war. Do you think we’re just asking, or that media are just asking, the wrong questions? How should the conversation change around education?

I think sometimes the media likes to paint a story where there’s two sides and they’re battling, and it’s just not so simple in this case. Both unions very quickly endorsed Obama when he was running for re-election, despite that that was the middle of the Arne Duncan administration, as we already knew the direction that education was moving in. As you pointed out, a lot of attention was given to the statement about grizzly bears, right, and that’s why we need guns. But there are so many deeper, much more complicated conversations that we needed to be having. Let me point to one.

Right after her confirmation, a lot of the media attention was played on how all the Democrats staged that 24-hour talk-a-thon to stall the confirmation vote in the full Senate. We didn’t talk about how a lot of those Democrats actually supported the policies that she’s talking about around privatization. We didn’t talk about how the two Republicans who dissented were actually in the Senate committee, and had either of them voted against her in committee, it would have never gone to the Senate vote. We also didn’t talk about how within hours of the confirmation vote, one of our congresspeople put forward a one-sentence bill that basically would dissolve the Department of Education in the end of 2018. These are some of the muted stories that point to these bigger struggles over what public schools can and should be looking like.

And let me just tie the dots with one more point. I think we’ve come to a point in our nation where the framing conversation around education is how we can fuel competition to make things better. It’s like grocery stores in the neighborhood; it’s a competition that’s going to make things better. Well, in a competition, there has to be both winners and losers; that’s what it means to structure a competition. And so we should be asking ourselves, why are we talking about education where we presuppose, where we expect, that some are going to lose? Why do we talk about education as if it’s a commodity, where those who have the resources can get the best and the masses get something very substandard?

Public education was first envisioned by some of our earliest leaders in this country, who were thinking and talking about public education as a public good, as something that every child should be able to walk to and attend a school that embodies the very best that our nation has to offer. We’ve lost sight of this idea, that education should be a central institution in our democratic nation. We are more and more buying into the story that it is a commodity, or it is a competition, and some will get something great and the masses will not. That’s the underlying story that needs to be really rattled, and these small debates over outlandish statements, or even policy issues, sometimes mask that really deeper debate that we as a nation need to be having.

We’ve been speaking with Kevin Kumashiro of Education Deans for Justice and Equity, online at The book is Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. Kevin Kumashiro, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you so much for having me and for covering this really important topic.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $44,000 in the next 7 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.