Betsy DeVos and Equal Opportunity

devosThis week Occupy Math pays off on a promise to look at Trump administration appointee Betsy DeVos. Now confirmed — by the lowest margin possible and the lowest margin ever for a cabinet level post — Ms. Devos is in charge of the federal government’s education policies. While Secretary of Education is not as big a deal as Secretary of State or Attorney General, this is an important government post with a good deal of influence on education in the United States. Today’s post looks at her potential impact on education, including math education.

This post examines what we know about possible impacts of Ms. DeVos proposed programs, based on their partial implementation in her home state of Michigan.

One of the most desired qualities in an applicant for a job is experience. Ms. DeVos has been an education activist for decades and has used her billion dollar family fortune, as the Amway heiress, to influence educational policy in Michigan, her home state. An article in the Washington Post examined Ms. DeVos’ accomplishments and impact. The Post notes:

DeVos is a former Republican Party chairwoman in Michigan and chair of
the pro-school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children,
and she has been a shining light to members of the movement to
privatize public education by working to create programs and pass laws
that require the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition
in the form of vouchers and similar programs. She has also been a
force behind the spread of charter schools in Michigan, most of which
have recorded student test scores in reading and math below the state

After charter schools supported by Ms. DeVos came on line, Michigan’s educational outcomes dipped.

A charter school is one that receives public funding but, rather than conforming with standard regulations, operates under a charter stating its mission. As one might expect, the performance of charter schools varies a great deal more than that of public schools. One stated reason for having charter schools is that they increase competition and put pressure on the public schools to do a better job. Since the funding of charter schools is typically at the expense of funding for public schools, a chronically underfunded sector in any case, it is very difficult to measure the impact. Controlled experiments that might actually test the hypothesis that charter schools help are absent. In addition, it is remarkably important to note that Ms. DeVos is not advocating for everyone to propose a good charter school idea. She has very specific types of charter schools in mind.

Occupy Math can find dozens of articles about how excellent the Michigan charter schools are and, for each of these, there is an article about how they are not different from the public schools in performance and are sucking money from the public system. Sorting this out is a topic for a doctoral thesis — and not one in math — so Occupy Math will turn to a simple metric. How has Michigan’s national ranking changed as Ms. DeVos has diverted funding from public to charter schools? The Detroit Free Press, in an article entitled Michigan students sliding fast toward the bottom says that in 2015:

  • Michigan ranked 41st in fourth-grade reading, down from 28th in 2003.
  • The state ranked 42nd in fourth-grade math, down from 27th in 2003.
  • It ranked 31st in eighth-grade reading, down from 27th in 2003.
  • It ranked 38th in eighth-grade math, down from 34th in 2003.

In order to receive public money, charter school students must take
these tests so the results are the combined performance of public and
charter schools. Ms. DeVos strongly favors an educational program that yields substantially worse results. While charter schools performed roughly as well as public schools by some measures in Michigan, they got there via a process that dragged the public schools down to their level.

But what does this have to do with equal protection?

A study by Stanford Economic Professor and charter school advocate Caroline Hoxby found that charter schools had superior performance, but only “among white non-Hispanics, males, and students who have a parent with at least a high school diploma”. In an earlier post Occupy Math discusses the toxic effects of taking biased samples. Let’s put this in very simple terms: charter schools which take students who already have advantages have superior performance. Occupy Math is appalled at this entirely bogus reasoning. Charter schools are allowed to cherry-pick their students. This means that they should be doing quite a bit better if their actual goal was education — but in many cases this is not the goal. A New York Times article notes that superior performance at charter schools can be due to sampling bias:

This is so-called selection bias, the greatest challenge in evaluating the effectiveness of schools. Stuyvesant High School in New York City, to which entry is granted through a competitive exam, is filled with smart students who might succeed anywhere. When those students do well, is it because of the school or the students or both? How about Harvard, or any other school?

This leaves open the question, what sorts of charter schools does Education Secretary DeVos favor? She is quoted in many different places and over a period of years as saying she wants to “Use America’s Schools to Advance God’s Kingdom. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

  • It is entirely contrary to the American principle of separation of church and state. To be very clear, Betsy DeVos wants to fund one kind of sectarian charter schools, not any and all charter schools, and has demonstrated (in Michigan) that it hurts students.
  • It will most harm the students who most need help. DeVos’ proposed program will divert $20,000,000,000 dollars to grants that will make it possible for middle-class students to attend alternate schools. The funds are not sufficient for poor students to attend.
  • It will gut the public schools. The DeVos proposal asks states to kick in money — which will come from public schools — to top off her program. This will continue the de-funding of public schools.

In the famous case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka the Supreme Court of the United States found that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Ms. DeVos’ proposal has, as a direct effect, the restoration of segregation in American schools. The basis for the decision striking down school segregation is the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.

Public education means that we all grow up together.

Occupy Math went to New York Elementary school (on New York street) in Lawrence, Kansas. It was there that Occupy Math met, got to know, and learned something about African Americans and First Nations (American Indian) people. There were two pregnancies in Occupy Math’s sixth grade class. One of his classmates became a star linebacker for the Kansas Jayhawks. Another is running a day-care center in Seattle, Washington. Occupy Math got beat up a lot for being a smart-ass. He got three of his New York School classmates through required math courses later in high school, by tutoring them. All of this helped Occupy Math to develop the ability to believe “not everyone is like me” — a belief whose lack is at the core of many of our current problems.

If you followed the link for “advancing God’s kingdom”, you know that Ms. DeVos advocated that parents be able to send students to schools that reflect their parent’s world view. Occupy Math’s editor observed that this is exactly how you shrink God’s kingdom — Ms. DeVos is protecting God from competition, which shows a startling lack of faith. Does the Almighty need a hiding place? More generally, Ms. Devos would deprive all Americans of the chance to get to know their fellow Americans, an experience Occupy Math has found uniquely beneficial.

What about math education?

One absolutely bizarre feature of Betsy DeVos is her policy on STEM education. She doesn’t have one. During her confirmation hearings the STEM questions had to be asked as written follow-up questions. Here are her answers. They follow a strong template. “That is an important topic. I will work with [organizations] on that”. It is clear that she has no background on or interest in STEM, but that she is clever enough to realize she has to conceal that.

Residents of Churchill, Manitoba

It is unheard of for a Secretary of Education to form their opinions about STEM education during their confirmation hearings. A typical nominee has a record stretching back decades with many publicly expressed opinions and even publications about STEM education. What took the place of STEM questions during the live hearings? Having spent most of her adult life in a bubble, she thought it was important to establish her pro-gun credentials by saying guns-at-school policy should be a state and local matter. This is because some schools need to protect themselves from grizzly bears. Now Occupy Math lives in a country, Canada, where something like this actually happens — Churchill, Manitoba has a whole civic policy concerned with bears wandering into town — but in the United States, defending schools from bears in not a gun issue, it is a “call animal control” issue.

A silver lining to having an anti-education, inexperienced, unqualified Secretary of Education is that most of the control of education in the United States is state and local. Having a out-of-touch person with no understanding of the law of the land or the value of education in charge of education at the federal level is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the previous Congress already substantially reduced the powers of the Secretary of Education. Other than controlling federal loans and grants, Ms. Devos has remarkably little power. The real damage will come from her inaction, her failure through ignorance, inability, and incompetence to take a lead in improving education.

It is worth noting that Ms. Devos opposed the repeal of protections for trans-gender students, but this act of good will and tolerance was efficiently smacked down by the Trump administration. Occupy Math is appalled and deeply distressed that we have someone in charge of educational policy that is not only ignorant of such policy, but actively hostile to broadly available, high quality public education. Occupy Math and Betsy DeVos are both education reformers but from such different perspectives it is difficult to fathom. If you have any thoughts on Ms. DeVos, educational reform, or what we can do about all this, please comment or tweet!

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics


3 thoughts on “Betsy DeVos and Equal Opportunity

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