As the older folks are wont to say in our part of the country, “Well, I’ll be!” Those are the words that came to my mind as I listened to the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, speak at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, last week.
I’m sure you know of whom I speak. DeVos got much press coverage during her Senate confirmation hearings — primarily because throughout much of the proceedings she sat like a deer in headlights as she attempted to respond to serious education policy questions which were clearly over her head. On questions that required depth, insight and understanding of important education matters she was, well, often at a loss.
For example, a question was put to her regarding the ongoing and consequential issue of whether test scores should be used to measure a student’s proficiency (was a specific standard reached) or used to measure a student’s growth (has the student improved over time). She didn’t have a clue. As one observer noted, “The question essentially rendered her speechless as she appeared not to know how to answer.”
It was not the only question to leave her sitting in stunned silence, or to which she had no real response. Her performance throughout the proceeding led to her being categorized as possibly “the most ill-prepared Cabinet nominee we’ve seen in quite some time.”
Last week DeVos turned her ill-informed gaze upon Mobile. For what cause? The Brookings Institution was rolling out the results of its 2016 Education Choice and Competition Index report. In its fifth year, the ECCI is an annual ranking of the level of choice in 112 of the nation’s largest school districts.
The report doesn’t measure academic performance or quality. As it says in the report’s introductory section, “The ECCI is not designed to answer causal questions about what system or education delivery mechanism works best.” Its purpose, then? To determine to what degree a district provides things like private school vouchers, charter schools, virtual schools and other categories pertinent to choice and “competition.” Thirteen categories in all.
The report notes in the absence of federal data for evaluation of category rankings “information is derived from school district websites and interviews with district staff.” This latter point is important because it has become clear that no official from the Mobile County Public School system was ever interviewed for the study, like with most districts in the study; determinations were made simply based on what information could be found on a school district’s website. This prompted Mobile County Schools Superintendent Martha Peek to note, “I am shocked that the U.S. Secretary of Education would reference a website review.” Read more about Peek’s response in reporter Jason Johnson’s story in this issue.
Another national commentator stated similarly, “DeVos’s comments were unusual. For one thing, education secretaries usually don’t single out districts for criticism.” But criticize she did. The report refers to Mobile as a “laggard,” and senior Brookings Institution fellow Russ Whitehurst used the same word in his remarks about Mobile. Per Whitehurst, Mobile’s system has “no choice” or if so it’s “mysterious.”
Speaking after Whitehurst, DeVos said of the Mobile County system, the largest in the state of Alabama with more than 55,000 students and the only Alabama district in the report: “I’m glad that Russ highlighted districts like Mobile, Alabama, that provide choice but don’t give parents adequate tools to take advantage of the program.” She continued, “The report noted that Mobile is not alone; 26 other districts, nearly a quarter of those surveyed, received a letter grade of ‘F,’ meaning they provide few to no tangible options. I’m hopeful this report serves to light a fire under them to better serve students.”
What other districts does Mobile share this “laggard” category with that also requires a “fire” being lit under them? Districts from some of the wealthiest areas in the United States, such as Virginia Beach City, Virginia, and Orange County, California.
Remember, this report does not gauge how well a school district is educating its children, just the availability of voucher programs, charter schools and the like. Which is why Superintendent Peek stated the report is a “bunch of political garbage that has nothing to do with the quality of education offered in Mobile County or in any public school system.” The ECCI study, she added, is nothing but an advertisement for charter schools and vouchers.
Therein lies the problem many believe make DeVos totally unfit to be education secretary. Along with her serious lack of knowledge in education matters, DeVos seems devoid of objectivity when it comes to her strong advocacy of school choice. She totally disregards how a lack of accountability and oversight in these programs can have detrimental consequences.
Although the Denver, Colorado, school system was ranked No. 1 in the ECCI, mostly because of its streamlined school application process and website, Secretary DeVos cautioned: “But the simple process masks limited choices.” In other words, they may have made No. 1, but because they lack choice options such as private school vouchers, their ranking is suspect.
Denver County Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg didn’t take kindly to her comments. Boasberg responded: “We respectfully disagree with Secretary DeVos. We do not support private school vouchers. We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district run or charter … we ensure [an] equitable system of enrollment … where all schools play by the same enrollment rules and all schools are subject to the same rigorous accountability systems.”
When asked during her Senate confirmation hearing if she agrees all schools receiving taxpayer funding should be held equally accountable, her response was. “Well, no …”
So, here we are with a national issue so important and complex as education, yet we have a leader devoid of the ability to comprehend or navigate that complexity. Our children deserve better. We deserve better.