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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos probably won’t be fired but she needs to resign

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos probably won’t be fired but she needs to resign
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Betsy DeVos is terrible at her job and must resign before she does further damage to public education and the charter schools she claims to support.

Peter Cunningham and Richard Whitmire

 |  Opinion contributors

She’s been roasted on Saturday Night Live, humiliated on 60 Minutes and interrogated on Capitol Hill. All of which raises the obvious question, will Education Secretary Betsy DeVos be the next to go? And if not, why not?

Unlike the ousted Rex Tillerson, who may have been the worst secretary of State in history, DeVos does not have the excuse of an erratic, meddling president with no vision. She inflicts damage to education causes all on her own.

What viewers saw this month during her fumbled 60 Minutes interview is what has been obvious for much longer to education insiders (including “reformers” like us, who in theory should be supporting her): She lacks any of the three basics needed to do her job.

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First, she has no demonstrated interest in the public schools that educate 90% of our students. An education secretary has three basic constituencies: parents, teachers and kids. She lacks a connection to any. Her message is parent empowerment, but her base is private schools.

For this she is a failure.

Second, she fails to grasp even the basics of what’s not working in K-12 education. Her admission to 60 Minutes interviewer Lesley Stahl that she has not visited failing schools was beyond shocking. How can you be so sure that “choice” is the solution to those schools if you haven’t even visited?

For this, she is also a failure.

Third, she can’t seem to defend what she professes to support, charter schools, which is possibly the most indefensible of her failures — and where she’s doing the most long-term damage. 

In the 60 Minutes interview, DeVos tried to defend charters by contending they improved traditional public schools. True? There are cities, such as Denver and Indianapolis, where education leaders wisely fold top charters into their menu of schools. Thus, parents are able to choose better schools.

But are charters going to solve our education problems by improving failing districts’ schools? Not likely, in part because most superintendents want nothing to do with them.

Consider New York City, home to the highly successful Success Academy charters, which educate about 15,500 students in 46 schools. Its students, who are almost all minority and almost all from low-income families, turn in test scores that rival or best many traditional schools in wealthy suburban neighborhoods.

How do they do it? New York schools Chancellor Carmen Farina is barely curious. Farina was appointed chancellor in December 2013 and didn’t visit a Success school until May 2016 — and even then it was only to observe a “reading buddies” program a Success school coordinated with a co-located neighborhood school.

Possibly the most successful charters in the country, Brooke Charter Schools in Boston, posted their entire academic playbook online. Want to know how we get these results with poor kids? Here it is. Perhaps there are teachers quietly tapping in, but so far no inquiries from districts.

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Maybe some of the charter pioneers had in mind that charters could become “laboratories” from which districts could learn. If so, they never imagined that most traditional educators could not care less about lessons learned from charters.

What DeVos should know, and should be able to articulate, is that charters, especially the top charter management organizations such as KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, YES Prep and others, provide desperately needed options for parents who can’t afford to spend a fortune buying their way into high performing suburban districts.

She should have some idea what makes them tick.

And here’s something else we know about these charter organizations: Their alumni, almost all poor and minority, earn college degrees at rates of three to five times their peers. How? Superior academic preparation in the K-12 years and careful monitoring and support in the college years.

This is huge, and represents probably the most effective social experiment ever carried out, with important anti-poverty and civil rights implications.

Can these breakthroughs be arrested? Yes, with a political backlash from middle and upper-income parents who have been important charter supporters in past years, but are now enraged by both DeVos and President Trump. Evidence of that growing backlash is plentiful and building daily, especially on days when DeVos, easily the most hated Cabinet member, once again reveals her unfitness for the job.

She couldn’t even muster up a convincing show of empathy and compassion for students, teachers and families at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during her underwhelming visit on March 7.

When Trump leaves the White House, the backlash begins in earnest. And the first to get hurt will be charter school students on a college track. Their numbers will be limited, or possibly shrunk.

In a just world, DeVos would be fired, but we doubt that’s likely. Tillerson didn’t represent Trump’s “worldview,” we’re told. But DeVos does represent Trump’s worldview. It’s anchored in private schools, a world where there’s only one cure-all offered for public schools, a poorly articulated promise of “choice.”

DeVos needs to resign. At the very least, someone in her position, like doctors, should do no harm. Surely even she can see the damage she is inflicting on the causes she holds dear. 

When someone is unable to step up, the right thing is to step down.

Peter Cunningham is executive director of Education Post and a former assistant Education secretary. Education writer Richard Whitmire is the author of five books, two of them about charter schools. Follow them on Twitter: @PCunningham57 and @richardwhitmir


 



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