As we approach the end of 2016 and look with hope to 2017, educators and parents are concerned about President-elect Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos for education secretary. I share those concerns. But it is also important to remember the education secretaries of the past and how they have led us to where we are today.
None of the appointed individuals have rallied around public schools and the teachers who committed their lives and careers to working with students. They never promoted a free public school system for all children in our great country. They have not lifted public schools as a democratic institution of which we should be proud. Nor have they showcased our schools to the world.
None, with the exception of Terrel Bell and John King, were real teachers who ever worked everyday in real public school classrooms. King worked primarily in extremely strict “no excuses” charter schools.
None struggled with the difficulties children and teens bring to school. Nor did they demonstrate any effort to study the research as to how to correctly instruct and work with actual children. They did not consider the development of students.
You can argue that they are all nice people, and they may think they are doing right, but their ideology involves privatizing America’s democratic public schools.
Betsy DeVos may signal the end of public schooling with her glamorization of vouchers and her quest for religious schools, but education secretaries from the past likely see it as a culmination of their efforts. She will finish the job they all started.
Frederick Hess recently wrote in the National Review that the treatment of Betsy DeVos in articles and in the media has been unconscionable. I have to agree that few articles have praised her selection. I think many realize she signifies the end of something Americans once held dear.
But one need only look at the many vacant school buildings doting city landscapes to see she is not the first to go after public schools. Such a sight stands as testament of a country which turned on its own best interests in caring for its children.
I think that is also because, to put it in a holiday framework, unlike Scrooge getting a visit from Jacob Marley’s ghost, no education secretaries from the past will likely visit Betsy DeVos tonight to warn her to change her ways and save public schools for the children.
Unlike Jacob Marley, those education secretaries are not suffering. It is the children and their teachers who wear the chains.
And the words “America’s Democratic Public Schools” will be the inscription on the tombstone. It will be a death that is a part of us all.
From the most current to the oldest, all of these individuals played significant roles in ending public schooling for students.
John King (March 14, 2016-Present Obama): King has degrees which other ed. secretary’s lack, including a Doctorate in Education from Harvard, but his work background involves mostly charter schools. He was one of the founders of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, and he was involved with Uncommon Schools.
Many have expressed concern over the strict idea of “no excuses” schools for the poor. Such an ideology suggests young children usually of color deserve to be treated stricter than other children…to keep them from getting into trouble later.
From the Chalkbeat:
Among those educators: current acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King, who co-founded the high-performing charter school Roxbury Prep and helped lead the Uncommon Schools charter network.
“No excuses” signals the group’s original diagnosis for what hurt high-poverty schools, one that many still hold today. Too many people, they decided, used poverty as a reason to accept less-than-excellent academic results. They made excuses.
The coordinators of these schools connected with Achievement First and KIPP charter school creators to form what has become Relay Graduate School of Education. Relay promotes a fast track online program of strict student obedience involving teacher education.
While President Obama said King was “an exceptionally talented educator,” committed to “preparing every child for success,” parents in New York were glad to see him leave as Commissioner of Education there. They especially objected to his tour promoting Common Core State Standards.
Arne Duncan (2009-2016 Obama): Duncan was CEO (Superintendent) of Chicago’s public schools before he became education secretary, but he had no education degrees or experience working with children. He was never a teacher or a principal.
For many educators and parents who supported President Obama’s mantra of “Hope and Change,” Duncan’s selection signaled a loss for public schooling.
Duncan’s primary goals surrounded Race to the Top a 4.35 billion competitive grant that rewarded so-called innovation in K-12 education. Even the name, which doesn’t suggest cooperative schooling, turned many off. High-stakes testing and data collection were kings. Duncan pushed to eliminate special education services.
Here are his comments about the radical privatization of New Orleans poor schools after Katrina. New Orleans schools had been underfunded for years.
I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’ And the progress that they’ve made in four years since the hurricane is unbelievable. They have a chance to create a phenomenal school district. Long way to go, but that — that city was not serious about its education. Those children were being desperately underserved prior, and the amount of progress and the amount of reform we’ve seen in a short amount of time has been absolutely amazing.
Margaret Spellings (2005-2009 G.W.Bush): Margaret Spellings was one of the architects of No Child Left Behind, the most draconian law ever to negatively affect public schools.
NCLB clearly demonstrated that Democrats and Republicans were shaking hands when it came to destroying public education. It was seen as a signature moment when Senator Edward Kennedy stood in support behind President George W. Bush as he signed the bill.
Spellings said of NCLB “I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: It’s 99.9% pure or something. There’s not much needed in the way of change.”
High-stakes standardized testing and charter schools flourished under Spellings.
Unrealistic goals were made that claimed all students would read with 100% proficiency. Teachers were blamed when students didn’t do well on the tests, and the ante was always raised on those tests when students did do well.
Schools were always at the bottom of the test score rankings, because there will always be schools at the bottom. Those schools were shuttered.
Alternative teaching programs were highlighted under Spellings. Nonprofit groups to privatize public schools multiplied.
Spellings also reigned over the now mostly forgotten Reading First fiasco—a monopoly that steered government reading funds to certain publishers and professors. She blamed the previous secretary Rod Paige, but others involved in the scandal pointed to her as well. Columnist Ann C. Lewis called Reading First “education’s little Enron scandal.”
Spellings, asked once what her experience was in education, replied that she had been a substitute teacher.
She is now the president of the University of North Carolina public university system.
Roderick Raynor “Rod” Paige (2001-2005 G.W. Bush): Rod Paige was a coach, college administrator, school board member, and superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. He presided over the “Texas Miracle” where student test scores soared and the dropout rate plummeted. Only it was found later not to be true.
Like Spellings, Paige was instrumental in writing NCLB and Reading First. Both also pushed alternative teacher preparation and were considered anti-career-teachers. Paige once called the teachers union a “terrorist organization.”
Whether you like the teachers union or not, it is surprising that the education secretary isn’t in favor of teachers and the professional organization that represents them.
Richard Riley (1993-2001 Clinton): Riley was governor of South Carolina and well-liked. But the years of the Clinton administration were anything but quiet where education reform was concerned.
President Clinton carried forward the agenda created by President H.W. Bush. The climate included a certain edginess implying that student behavior and teacher instruction needed fixing.
President Clinton surrounded his education agenda around 10 principles. It is easy to see privatization in the mix.
I have a plan, a call to action for American education, based on these 10 principles:
- A national crusade for education standards, representing what all our students must know to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.
- To have the best schools, we must have the best teachers.
- We must do more to help all our children read. 40% of our 8-year-olds cannot read on their own.
- Learning begins in the first days of life. We should start teaching children before they start school.
- Every State should give parents the power to choose the right public school for their children.
- Character education must be taught in our schools.
- We cannot expect our children to raise themselves up in schools that are literally falling down.
- We must 2 years of college universal.
- In the 21st century, we must expand the frontiers of learning across a lifetime.
- We must bring the power of the information age into all our schools.
The school agenda surrounded pleasing the business community.
High-stakes standards became more prominent in the states. Wearing uniforms and ending social promotion were high on the list of reforms, though little if any research supports either. Character education was incorporated into the school day.
Draconian zero tolerance rules became a part of school districts. Teacher competency tests were instigated.
Some talk of lowering class sizes and a little extra incentive pay for teachers provided some hope that public schools were moving in the right direction, but the Clinton administration was on board for charter schools and privatization. They were not keen on vouchers.
Lamar Alexander (1991-1993 Reagan): Senator Alexander is for privatization of schools and has been a proponent of vouchers. He supported Chris Whittle’s Edison School privatization experiment in the 90s which failed. Yet the same concept of privatizing schools today is driving reform.
Alexander still supports choice and charter schools. From the Chalkbeat:
Singling out KIPP and Rocketship – two national charter school networks operating in his home state – Alexander called for federal grants to seed more high-quality charter schools. “Our goal is to grow the federal investment in expanding and replicating high-quality charter schools with a demonstrated record of success, and hold charter schools accountable for their performance,” he said.
Many educators and parents were disappointed that Alexander led the recent rewrite of NCLB which resulted in the controversial Every Student Succeeds Act. And, of course, Alexander is pleased with the DeVos selection.
Lauro Fred Cavazos Jr. (1988-1990 Reagan and H.W. Bush) Lauro Fred Cavazos Jr. was not in office long.
William Bennett (1985-1988 Reagan): Bennett was no friend to public schools and can still be found promoting programs pro privatization. He is looked upon as a conservative authority and has written books for children and parents about morals and teaching, though he himself never worked in a public school classroom or with children that I know of.
Bennett has never seen a privatization program for schools he didn’t like. He praises Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards.
The following is from my book Losing America’s Schools and though it is about Bill Bennett, I think it encapsulates the philosophy of many reformers who want to starve public schooling so privatization can flourish.
While chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hundt asked former Republican education secretary William Bennett to help obtain legislation to pay for internet access for America’s schools and libraries. Hundt said Bennett told him, “He would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.
Bennett has profited directly from school privatization efforts through the online program K12 Inc. which repeatedly shows bad results. Still, it is purchased by school districts around the country. You could say his privatization dreams came true and he made plenty of money on a tech program.
Terrel Bell: (1981-1985 Reagan): Terrel Bell was the only real educator who worked in public schools. He was a teacher, bus driver and superintendent. Bell formed the commission that would write A Nation at Risk, a report that ended up being much more critical of public schools than warranted.
Many believe A Nation at Risk was written at a time when schools were trying to adjust to race relations, and that it set in motion the decline of our public schools.
But it is said of Bell that he helped close achievement gaps in certain school districts and he is looked upon as being somewhat friendly towards public schools.
He understood that motivation was a key to learning.
A prolific education book writer, Bell eventually resigned from the Reagan administration apparently after his frustration at realizing that the Office of Budget Management was not funding public schools as needed.
De-funding public schools, it can be said, is where school privatization started.