The Disease of Educational Statism: Betsy DeVos isn’t a cure – by all appearances, she’s a symptom

The definition of “statism” according to Merriam-Webster is

Concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government often extending to government ownership of industry

Applying this definition to the state of education in America today is easily accomplished by changing a few words:

Concentration of education funding, control and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government, or moneyed individuals, often extending to government ownership of public education

I couldn’t help thinking about this concept as I read the recent (1/6/17) op-ed by Governor – and former Republican Presidential Nominee – Mitt Romney, in defense of the nomination of Betsy DeVos for the head of the US Department of Education.

It’s important to remember that Betsy DeVos was for Common Core before she was against it because Common Core is nothing if not the product of Educational Statism and this is important because statism is friend neither to local, nor parental control of, education.

Educational Statism Kills Local Control

For years I’ve written about the ways in which public education policy fails to provide students with an education of excellence – particularly through the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. In fact, though I often found at least one red flag a week indicating the failure of their public elementary school to meet the needs of my own children (schooled at home following 1st, 2ndand 4th grades) due to wrong-headed policy (or politics), it wasn’t until my discovery and study of Common Core in 2010, that I conflated the notion of statism and public education.

Common Core - a program developed from a concept that ‘streamlining’ and homogenizing learning standards across states could raise ‘rigor’ in public schools - cannot be considered other than a ‘statist’ concept.

Developed by well-funded individuals and organizations through a group called Achieve, adopted by the George W. Bush Administration through his reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESA) called “No Child Left Behind” and then promoted by the Obama Administration with Race To The Top grants, the Federal Department of Education made increasing the palatability of Common Core to states the centerpiece of much of its work from 2010 through 2016 .

In addition, well-funded individuals such as Bill Gates (through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and Jeb Bush (through the Foundation for Excellence in Education), and networks such as the Chamber of Commerce and businesses such as Exxon/Mobile, joined forces with the government-linked private groups, of the National Governor’s Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers (CCSSO) who helped create Achieve, to drive the initiative into states by lobbying state elected officials who then often wrote the standards into state law, effectively undermining the ability of local schools and school boards to direct public education efforts in their communities without running afoul of state law.

Once fertilized via federal and state money, the roots of Common Core expanded into every conceivable educational branch from testing to textbooks to AP programming and the ACT, simply because a “Common Core market” was created that beckoned any existing vendor or entrepreneur looking to profit.

Almost immediately it became hard to find books without the newly-coveted “Common Core APPROVED!” stamp. Suddenly, homeschoolers and classical educators found their book selections narrowed by this influx. Public school teachers, forced to re-align their classroom instruction to include convoluted math programming and non-fiction reading materials, found themselves having to teach in a way they weren’t taught, many kids didn’t understand, and that could not produce the promised ‘rigor’.

Educational Statism Drastically Diminishes Parental Control

Along with Common Core in the Race To The Top slate of taxpayer giveaways, came three other initiatives, one of which was the creation of a State Longitudinal Database (SLDS). Of course, once states took money from the federal government for Common Core, they could also take money to establish an SLDS. A state SLDS pulls in all kinds of information on students reported by their schools and, in turn, reports it to various state agencies (and even organizations or individuals simply associated with the education of children).  

Thanks to changes made to FERPA laws early on in President Obama’s first term, parents lost much of their ability to discover exactly what kind of data was being reported and collected on their children and by whom while educational authorities got near carte blanche to collect all the data they could get.

In addition, the federally mandated Civil Rights Data collection, which collects information on bullying and other behavioral infractions on or off campus during school hours, created the potential for students to be charged with offenses which could create lifelong records before they were even 18.

As Common Core quickly became the new education reform darling bankrolled by the public purse and bolstered by state policy, private companies swooped in to create platforms and programs upon which “Common Core APPROVED!” instruction could be facilitated via computer. Without a way to see the computers utilized by their children during class hours, or tests administered during instruction time, parents had – and still have – no real way of reviewing and/or approving much of what their children are doing or seeing while at school.

Who – or What – Is The Education Establishment?

In his op-ed, Mr. Romney assures us that the debate over Mrs. DeVos confirmation is between those in the ‘education establishment’ who support the status quo and those who seek to challenge them.

So who is/are the ‘education establishment’ according to Romney? After reading his ‘take’ on the situation, it seems Mr. Romney believes the ‘education establishment’:
  1. …make their money solely from the education of children. (DeVos doesn’t need a job in education – or any job for that matter – because she is independently wealthy.)
  2. ...want more teachers, more pay and smaller classrooms - ‘status quo’ solutions. (DeVos believes in the right of parents to choose the educational option that works best for their students.)
  3. ...oppose charter schools and school choice. (DeVos is a huge supporter and backer of charter schools in her home state of Michigan. She also supports private schools, homeschools and online schools as a matter of choice for parents.)
  4. ...want oversight and accountability for charters. (DeVos supported the A-F grading system for accountability begun by G.W. Bush, and supported by President Obama.)

After some discussion on these points, Mr. Romney exits the page by saying

I am truly excited that someone of Betsy DeVos’s capability, dedication and absence of financial bias is willing to take an honest and open look at our schools. The decades of applying the same old bromides must come to an end. The education establishment and its defenders will understandably squeal, but the interests of our children must finally prevail.

I actually agree with with Mr. Romney’s characterization of the ‘education establishment’.
I also support the ability of parents to choose the best option for the education of their children, however, I don’t believe with any surety at all that Mr. Romney understands that the “anti-status quo” community has taken the “old bromides”, and instead of neutralizing them, just created new ones of the kind Mrs. DeVos and her associates have supported, such as Common Core and A-F.

Recently, I created a graphic to express the thoughts I penned in a blog wherein I made the argument that education policy is really just two sides of the same coin – the ‘education establishment’ who operate on taxpayer dollars on one side, and the ‘corpratists’ who buy education policy with their private funds, on the other. In the middle are the simple parents just trying to do what is best for the kids while getting squeezed from either side.

Note when you look at the graphic, you see the same names, organizations and policies on either side (yellow boxes/green type) of the middle line.

While many of us know the social justice and civil rights regulations established at the federal level in the last 8 years have wrought havoc in public schools, many of us forget that the policies created around the concepts of High Standards (a generally agreed euphemism for Common Core), Workforce Development (archived link), Accountabilityand Global Competition have done nothing but grow government and increase regulations. In fact, the only visible difference between the right and left is that at least the right pays lip service to the idea that parents should direct the educational options of their children (school choice).

Money, Money, Money, Money…..Money

Mr. Romney draws a line in the sand between Mrs. DeVos and the ‘education establishment’ by saying the latter essentially sucks off the teat of the taxpayer (which is bad), and the former has her own money (which is good). So there you go. Problem solved. Except that it isn’t. Frankly, from Mr. Romney’s description and Mrs. DeVos’s CV, it’s clear she is a member of the ‘establishment’ too – the Republican Establishment.

As I was writing this piece, I came across an old email dated 8/8/16 - long before DeVos was even on the radar screen - from my Betty Peters, Alabama State Board of Education member. In it, were the following words:

Jenni, have you included Betsy Devos of Michigan in your research? Her group is a major player in funding the bad Republican candidates on the AL state school board.

The group was the American Federation for Children for which Mrs. DeVos has served as Chairman from 2009, and one of their functions is to raise money for ‘school choice’ candidates across the nation. Clearly, not all these are endorsed by grassroots activist members of the party. In addition, the “ed choice 101” tab on their website includes model legislation to create laws associated with ‘school choice’ programs such as education savings accounts and scholarship programs. More laws, bigger government, less freedom for everyone – the hallmark of ‘establishment Republicans’ everywhere – that’s just the way it works.

Dr. Susan Berry at Breitbart has written several articles on Mrs. DeVos’s background and supporters. In one of these pieces, she gives voice to several activists from Stop Common Core in Michigan who say that members of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) which she founded, opposed the repeal of Common Core in Michigan.

Look, as I’ve said before, I’m a conservative – I have no beef at all with people who have money. I hope to be one someday. I also support educational choice. I simply don’t want people with money influencing the size and scope of government – and therefore my everyday life – simply because they can ‘buy’ legislation to do so.

In fact, that may be my biggest concern with DeVos – her track record of ‘buying’ legislation and growing government in the name of education. How will this past (and her current associations with Common Core supporters like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and others) translate to a job in the public sector at an agency that doesn’t even have a Constitutional mandate to exist yet sucks massive amounts of dollars out of our pockets to justify its existence? Hopefully, our senators will be savvy enough to ask these questions and think this issue through. Meanwhile, we have no choice but to wait and see.