The Legacy of Betsy DeVos on Public Education
DeVos’s divisive tenure as U.S. secretary of education under the Trump administration will have repercussions for decades to come.
From her refusal to do anything about gun violence in America—even after horrific mass shootings in schools during her tenure—to shameless promotion of private charter schools at the expense of public education, DeVos’s time as secretary of education in the U.S. was divisive and damaging. During her time in office, DeVos manipulated the emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic to back her education privatization agenda. Her rhetoric sparked increased support for inequitable and racist educational practices. Her efforts energized legislative efforts across the country to pour taxpayer funds intended for public education into private charter schools and undermine accountability and oversight.
When she left office, there was widespread relief among parents, educators, and supporters of public education. However, she left a legacy of lasting damage and future threats to public education in her wake.
After Betsy DeVos Was Gone, Her Education Agenda Continued
In 2021, in states as politically diverse as Washington, Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, and New Hampshire, state legislators were introducing bills to increase the number of charter schools and create new school voucher programs or greatly expand current ones. According to the Educational Freedom Institute (EFI), a think tank that advocates for vouchers, charter schools, and other forms of “school choice,” as of 2021 there were at least 14 states actively considering legislation to pour greater sums of taxpayer dollars intended for public education into privately operated schools. Many of the bills had been introduced following the November 2020 elections, which ousted Trump and DeVos but resulted in big gains for Republicans down-ticket.
These proposals to privatize public schools began taking on new forms that were less transparent, would be easier to pass through legislation, and would take larger sums of money from public schools, which educate between 80 and 90 percent of American children. Further, the bills began surfacing at a time when public education was highly vulnerable due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic havoc it wreaked.
Package Bills Pushing Privatization
In Florida, Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana in 2021, lawmakers were considering bills that condense various “school choice” proposals into a “package” of legislation that could be passed with one vote rather than be subjected to public scrutiny one proposal at a time.
In Florida, for instance, Republican legislators proposed a bill, SB 48, that would expand the state’s school voucher programs, the Orlando Sentinel reported in January 2021, and “spend more money on them.” Among the many proposals in the bill was to combine the state’s five voucher programs under a single taxpayer-funded source that the Miami Herald described as “the holy grail in the school-choice movement.”
Funding for Florida vouchers, often called “scholarships,” came via a program that rewards tax credits to corporations and individuals who donate to a scholarship agency. Under the provisions in SB 48, funding would instead come from government-established educational savings accounts (ESAs) for families to use to pay for educational expenses.
During her tenure as secretary, DeVos repeatedly included a proposal for a federal ESA program in her annual budget, and she advocated for the federal government to create an ESA program for military families. ESAs are popular with school choice proponents because they expand the range of education services that can be purchased with public funds, from private school tuition to tutoring, digital devices, and internet access.
The Florida bill also proposed to expand the number of families who could take advantage of the voucher program. Among those who would become newly eligible, the Florida School Boards Association noted, were students already enrolled in private schools or being homeschooled. In other words, families already opting out of public school would receive a subsidy from the taxpayers to continue to do so.
Another proposal in the Florida bill would make the voucher program less accountable by decreasing the frequency of required program audits from annual to once every three years. ESA programs, however, are in need of even more stringent oversight. A 2018 state audit of Arizona’s ESA program found parents used their debit cards to make “fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public money allocated” by the program, according to the Arizona Republic.
A new bill up for consideration in Missouri in 2021 called for a similar “package” of school choice measures, the Missouri Times reported.
The bill, SB 55, originated as a proposal to require public school districts to allow homeschooled students to participate, free of charge, in after-school sports and activities. But as the bill made its way through committee, it was loaded with “provisions hostile to public education that have never even had a public hearing,” according to an alert sent out by the Network for Public Education, a pro-public school advocacy nonprofit organization.
Included in the bill was a proposal to allow new charter schools, which were originally confined to just St. Louis and a district in Kansas City, to start up in any municipality with a population above 30,000. Another provision added to the bill would establish a tax credit program, similar to the one in Florida, allowing donors to take a tax credit for their contributions, which are then issued to eligible parents to pay for private school tuition, virtual schooling, or homeschooling.
The bill would also level a broadside at state and local school boards by limiting state board members to one term only and by requiring a recall election for any local school board member if a petition campaign generated the number of signatures that equals at least 25 percent of the number of votes cast in the last school board election—a ridiculously low threshold since school board elections generally have very low turnout.
In Iowa, Republican Governor Kim Reynolds was behind a multipronged privatization effort in 2021 to create a school voucher program, establish an independent charter school organization to increase new charter startups (the state had only two charters as of 2021), and allow students to transfer out of public schools that have voluntary or court-ordered diversity plans.
The bill, introduced as Senate Study Bill 1065, but afterwards known as SF 159, according to the Network for Public Education, was “being fast-tracked through the state Senate.”
Republican state lawmakers denied that the bill was being fast-tracked, according to the Gazette, but the newspaper’s reporter noted the legislature made “some unusual procedural moves… to keep the proposal moving forward.”
In Indiana in 2021, Republicans were pushing a bill to expand the state’s existing voucher program, one of the largest in the country, and create a new ESA program, Chalkbeat reported.
The Bill, HB 1005, would expand vouchers to wealthier families earning up to about $145,000 per year, nearly double the state’s median family income of $74,000, resulting in a 40 percent increase in the number of voucher-funded students.
The voucher program, which “cost the state about $173 million [in the previous] school year,” according to Chalkbeat, would add “more than $100 million” to the cost of vouchers in its first year alone. The bill’s provision for a new ESA program was the “most costly element” of the bill, said Chalkbeat, because “[t]he program would be more generous than vouchers.”
This Is Not What People Want
What was telling about these post-DeVos bills was that proponents of school privatization clearly saw the need to quickly ram through their proposals because popular opinion was not necessarily on their side.
Whenever school choice proposals are subjected to popular vote, they generally fare poorly. In 2016, a ballot referendum to expand charter schools in Massachusetts was soundly defeated. The same year in Georgia, a ballot initiative to turn low-performing public schools over to charter management companies was defeated decisively. And a 2018 effort to expand eligibility for Arizona’s voucher program lost at the ballot box.
Vouchers and charter schools also don’t register as big winners in surveys of public opinion.
According to a 2020 poll by Education Next, an organization that advocates for charters and vouchers: “Support for school-choice reforms either holds steady or declines modestly since last year.” The poll found that tax credit programs like the ones proposed in 2021 in Missouri and Iowa are favored by 59 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Democrats, but it’s really hard to believe that most people understand these obscure programs and their consequences. Also, charter schools have become highly divisive along party lines, with 54 percent of Republicans supporting them and only 37 percent of Democrats feeling likewise.
What was also significant about these post-DeVos school choice initiatives is that Republicans were seeing them as leverage to push through other unpopular measures—in the case of Missouri, to undermine the popular vote and the democratic process used to elect school board members, and in Iowa, to attack racial integration, to undermine the rights of students and families of color, and to continue the dominance of white Western thought in school curricula.
Taking Advantage of a Crisis
School choice proponents also viewed the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to advance their cause.
Many parents were beyond distraught with their children’s situation. Also, in communities with high rates of viral spread, which was often most of America, state and local governments generally did not invest in the personnel and resources essential to safely reopen schools for in-person learning during the pandemic years.
Politicians and school choice advocates, many of whom were also complicit in the lack of investment in local schools, viewed this systemic failure as their chance to vastly expand taxpayer funding for privately operated schools.
Governor Reynolds, in her 2021 Condition of the State speech to the Iowa legislature, declared, “If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it’s that our parents need choice. And it’s not just in-person versus virtual. Sometimes it’s about which school to attend altogether.”
That theme became prevalent throughout the right-wing and school choice echo chambers—whose funders generally overlap—from local newspapers, to nationwide campaigns, to mainstream media.
It’s true the pandemic drove great numbers of parents to abandon public schools to search for other providers, such as for-profit online charter companies, private schools, brick-and-mortar charter schools, and privately operated learning pods and microschools.
And in some states, the playing field tilted to favor non-public schools.
For instance, when private schools in Ohio sued to be exempt from closure mandates issued by local health departments in 2021, a federal court agreed. The ruling came at the same time Ohio private schools were getting an enrollment boost where local schools stayed remote.
In North Carolina, when the state announced its pilot program for giving rapid antigen tests to schools, the list included 11 charter schools, and in three of the state’s largest school districts—Mecklenburg, Durham, Forsyth—the only schools getting the tests were charters, reported Carolina Public Press.
A False Choice
But basing broad public policy on the individual choices of some parents during a time of great stress promulgated a false choice.
Children engaged in face-to-face learning in private and charter schools could still get COVID-19. In North Carolina, figures released by the state health department in November 2020 indicated that outbreaks in private schools made up the majority of school-related COVID-19 clusters in the state.
Also, in most cases, parents switching to charter schools actually reduced their choices by subjecting their children’s education to the whims of charter management companies.
Amid spiking infection rates in Florida, a charter school near Jacksonville decided to end parents’ option to choose online learning for their children in 2020. In New York City, the largest chain of charter schools chose to offer online learning only. A nationwide survey conducted for Education Next’s journal in November and December 2020 found that 66 percent of students attending charter schools received remote instruction exclusively, while the percentage of students receiving remote instruction in traditional public schools was less—57 percent.
When school districts make these sorts of decisions, parents can at least voice their opinion at school board meetings, to county commissioners, and with state legislatures. And they do. But parents who enroll in charters, private schools, and other privately run options have no choice other than to leave the school, which, more often than not, is not a practical option, especially in the middle of an academic year.
Would states have ramped up these school privatization efforts had DeVos never set foot in the Department of Education? Probably. But her prominent leadership role and media persona raised public awareness of the well-funded and highly organized effort to privatize public schools and deepened political divisions over charter schools and voucher programs.
During the years of lockdown, as COVID-19 shuttered public schools across the nation, many government leaders—including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—used the emergency to advance their personal agendas including privatizing public education and balancing budgets on the backs of school kids. These budget shortfalls served to compound the preexisting harms done to a public education system experiencing financial trauma prior to the pandemic.
In 2020, public schools hadn’t fully recovered from the beating they took as a result of the Great Recession, as argued a report from the Albert Shanker Institute, a research center affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. The downturn in the nation’s economy that started in 2007 hit schools hardest in 2009 to 2011, after states had slashed education budgets and aid that came from the federal stimulus package had run out. The results were “fewer teachers and support staff, larger classes, and a narrower array of academic and extracurricular programs,” the report explains.
In the early days of the pandemic, many state governments threatened to slash education budgets due to the economic collapse caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and emergency aid provided by the federal government was far short of what was needed, according to a broad coalition of education groups. Similar to what happened in response to the Great Recession, leaders looked to balance states’ books by cutting spending rather than increasing taxes, and education and health care were set up to suffer most.
However, the charter school industry was poised to benefit from the emergency, thanks in large part to efforts by Betsy DeVos. As the New York Times reported in 2020, DeVos “forced” public school districts to spend large portions of the federal funds they received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act on private schools.
As retired school teacher and popular blogger Peter Greene explained on Forbes, DeVos was twisting the language of congressional law so that public schools with high percentages of students from low-income households received less assistance, and private school students received more. DeVos’s rewiring of the law also aimed at using federal aid to pay for “extra services” in private schools, such as hiring tutors.
The charter school movement, with DeVos as its champion, used its unique status to seek public funding from multiple sources and expand private schools into more and more communities traumatized by the pandemic and financial fallout.
As school districts reported huge problems with converting classroom learning into online instruction delivered to students’ homes, often due to lack of funding for internet-capable devices and Wi-Fi hotspots, charter school proponents spread the news of how their industry could take advantage of emergency aid.
Charter operators rolled out new marketing campaigns to lure families to enroll in their schools. And in national and local news outlets, advocates for charters, vouchers, and other forms of “school choice” helped forge a new media narrative about how the shuttering of the nation’s schools was an opportunity for parents and their children to leave public schools.
Teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland urged their districts to stop charter school expansions and co-locations, which they believe worsen the trauma that children in their communities are experiencing due to the virus. But the Trump administration and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos did not ease up their campaigns to further privatize public schools.
“This is an opportunity,” said DeVos in a 2020 interview with right-wing radio talk show host Glenn Beck, “to collectively look very seriously at the fact that K-12 education for too long has been very static and very stuck in one method of delivering and making instruction available.”
Gifts to Charter Schools
On March 27, 2020, one of DeVos’s first reactions to the pandemic was to urge Congress to provide “microgrants” to help “the most disadvantaged students,” an idea that struck knowledgeable education policy observers—including retired teacher Peter Greene and National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia—as being in sync with her longtime advocacy for school vouchers. Somehow the mass shuttering of the nation’s schools convinced her “that necessity has never been more evident.”
A week and a half later, DeVos unveiled an investment of more than $200 million in grants from the federal government to help 13 charter school management companies expand—with unclear spending oversight measures.
A December 2019 report from the Network for Public Education (NPE) found that since the charter grant program’s inception, approximately $1.17 billion had gone to schools that either never opened or that opened and had since shut down. The failure rate of charter startups funded by the education department’s Charter School Program was 37 percent.
An earlier NPE report, which I coauthored, also found that many charter management organizations that have received federal grants are “beset with problems including conflicts of interest and profiteering.” Some of the organizations receiving the 2020 round of federal funding from DeVos had these same flaws.
For instance, the largest grant, $72 million over five years, was allocated to the IDEA charter chain, which in January 2020 was publicly humiliated by reports in the Houston Chronicle for its plan to use $2 million in taxpayer money to buy a luxury private jet. The Chronicle also revealed the company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on tickets and luxury box seats at San Antonio Spurs NBA games—over $400,000 in the most recent year.
Another recent report, in the Texas Monitor, revealed IDEA executives spent over $800,000 on luxury travel between 2017 and 2019, including private jets and limos. In one of these larks, IDEA CEO Tom Torkelson took a private jet to Tampa to meet with DeVos “to discuss ‘education philanthropy,’” the Texas Monitor reports. Torkelson resigned in 2020.
Another charter chain to benefit from DeVos’s generosity was Mater Academy, which received the second-largest grant of $57.1 million. Mater Academy is affiliated with for-profit education company Academica.
As NPE executive director Carol Burris explained in the Washington Post, three schools operated by Academica in Florida, including two in the Mater chain, were the subjects of a government investigation that found “related party transactions” between Academica and “a real estate company that leased both buildings and security services to the schools.” The companies were also connected to founders of both the Mater Academies and Academica.
An extensive investigation of Academica’s business practices conducted by privatization watchdog group In the Public Interest in 2016 found in addition to providing management services, Academica also leased facilities to many of its schools and tended to charge significantly higher rents than what non-Academica charters were made to pay.
Each of these charter school operations deserved close scrutiny of their business practices, but DeVos chose to reward them with over $129 million in federal funding at a time when public school districts were in crisis and facing severe budget cuts.
How Charters Double-Dip
When Congress and the Trump administration announced plans in late March to send $13.5 billion in emergency aid to public schools, the charter school industry insisted it deserves its cut of the rescue funds too.
Writing in the pro-charter media outlet The 74, Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), said DeVos and governors should encourage districts to release these funds to schools “without regard to differences in school model,” meaning not to exclude charters.
In her letter telling governors where to apply for the emergency funds, DeVos specified the money was intended to support “schools (including charter schools and non-public schools),” meaning funds could be spent on charter schools and private schools.
Days before, Rees insisted charter schools be regarded as public schools and eligible for emergency aid, her organization also advised charter schools to apply for federal rescue funds for small businesses devastated by the pandemic.
According to Education Week, charter lobbying groups including NAPCS “urged charter schools… to consider applying for the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program, a short-term loan program designed to help businesses cover payroll expenses.”
Rees, who previously worked as a deputy assistant for domestic policy to former Vice President Dick Cheney, justified the request by claiming to the Education Week reporter, “The last recession hit charter schools pretty significantly” and that the fallout from COVID-19 might adversely affect “private giving to support their operations.”
But in the same article, NPE’s Carol Burris pointed out that “charter schools have had no drop in the funding stream” as a result of the pandemic, because state funding for both charter schools and school districts was already set for that academic year.
“Once again, the charter sector, through the lobbying efforts of Nina Rees… worked behind the scenes to gain fiscal advantage for the privately operated schools they claim are public schools,” Burris wrote in comments on the personal blog of education historian Diane Ravitch.
“Charters claim to be ‘public schools’ when that’s where the money is,” Ravitch added. “But when the money is available for small businesses, they claim to be small businesses.”
Charter school promoters defend their duplicity by pointing out that the law says nonprofit organizations are eligible for the funds, and charter schools are nonprofits. But public schools are not eligible for these funds, so why should charters, if they truly are public schools, get to change stripes to suit the occasion?
While most would agree that the current disruption to children’s learning is a disaster, fans of charter schools and other forms of school choice see an opportunity.
“It isn’t too early for parents to plan ahead for next year and beyond when school doors re-open,” wrote Joe Pantorno for New York City news outlet AMNY in 2020. “Charter schools have become a viable and attractive option for a child’s education,” insisted Pantorno, a sports editor.
In some districts where schools struggled with the transition to online, charter schools stepped up marketing campaigns, opened their enrollments mid-year to take in more students, and provided free computers to lure families away from public schools. Online charters in Utah and elsewhere ran advertisements urging parents to leave their public schools and enroll in privately operated online academies, which have continued to operate “largely unimpeded,” reported Rachel Cohen for The 74.
To guard against online charters trying to profit in a crisis, Oregon announced their school closure orders applied to online charters too because losing students to online schools would negatively affect public school budgets. Pennsylvania passed a bill freezing payments to online charter schools, even if more students enrolled in these schools, to prevent the financial drain that would happen when parents fled public schools.
“As the pandemic forces schools to innovate, Americans will get a glimpse into what the future of learning looks like,” predicted Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst at two right-wing think tanks in 2020.
Butcher’s claim appeared in a policy brief for the Mercatus Center, a privatization advocate at George Mason University, funded by the family foundation of Charles Koch and his late brother David. COVID-19 “could change education content delivery forever,” Butcher wrote, forcing schools to enter into “public-private partnerships with virtual learning providers.”
In a critical review of Butcher’s brief, Kevin Welner, a project director at the National Education Policy Center, warned that heedless efforts to strike deals with online education companies were “a clear example of ‘disaster capitalism’—the exploitation of instability and crisis to advance marketization.”
Welner pointed to a substantial body of evidence that online schools are ill-suited to address the broad purposes of schooling, which often include providing meals and health care services. These operations also tend to generate very poor academic results and under-serve struggling learners, especially students with disabilities.
Rather than rushing headlong into privatizing the public education system, Welner concluded that when the nation emerges from this dark period, “the real lesson for many Americans is a renewed appreciation for vital roles played by their children’s schools and teachers.”