It’s easy to mock Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, for telling the Senate she wasn’t opposed to guns in schools because they might be needed in case of bear attacks. Bears are scary! But to focus sniggeringly on DeVos’ anti-ursine feelings is to be distracted from what’s truly terrible about her: Her appointment would be a disaster for education in America.
DeVos would be the first secretary of education never to have attended a public school, taught in a public school, or sent her children to a public school. She is a proponent of so-called school choice, which lets public funds be used for charter, private, and religious schools. The upshot: It’s about stripping taxpayer money from public schools. And as Jews, we should think hard about whether that’s good for the commonweal.
Public schools have served a vital role in acculturating Jewish immigrants to American life. In the early 20th century, public schools taught us English, taught us how to be American, taught us what we needed to succeed in a new country. Charter schools have no such mission. Charters can boot any kid who doesn’t meet their standards; their nonunionized teachers have no job security and thus they often have little experience; charters have little accountability in how they’re managed and where they spend money. Voucher programs favor parents who can navigate the system, rather than new immigrants who don’t speak the language or parents who are too overwhelmed or disadvantaged to work all the angles. Charters’ emphasis on standardized testing doesn’t foster creativity, real-world problem solving, or independent thinking, all factors that have encouraged the success of Jews throughout history. And there’s little evidence—DeVos’ beliefs to the contrary—that charter schools are better for children than public schools.
DeVos hails from Michigan, where she’s poured vast swaths of her personal and familial fortune (a fortune derived from selling Amway, and if a pyramid scheme is not a perfect metaphor here, I don’t know what is, except for maybe bears) into charters. Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Flint are among the 10 school districts nationwide with the largest percentages of kids in charter schools; 80 percent of those schools are for-profit—that’s the highest percentage in the country. But as the number of charter schools in the state has exploded—Michigan charter-school enrollment has grown 75 percent in the last decade—the state’s national rank on English language-arts and math tests has plummeted. In reading, 80 percent of charters demonstrate academic achievement below the state average; in math, 84 percent of charters score below the state average. This is true even when the data are corrected for student poverty levels and background. Michigan charter schools now take in over $1 billion a year—from taxpayers—and they’ve never been shown to help kids learn. Oh, and by the way, these findings come from The Education Trust Midwest, a nonprofit that is not opposed to charter schools! (A parenthetical: I saw an approving comment about DeVos on a Forward story, noting that Michigan’s academic results would be way better if we disregarded the scores from poor districts. Yes, and if my bubbe had wheels, she’d be a wagon.)
The undisputed meh-ness of charters isn’t just a Michigan thing. Milwaukee has the longest-running public voucher program in America, but students there score at or below the levels of Milwaukee public-school students after socioeconomic status is factored in. In Cleveland, too, private schools in the voucher program don’t do as well as public schools when the data are corrected for income. In some Cleveland voucher programs, fewer than 20 percent of students achieve basic proficiency in reading or math.
School choice also lets families use tax money to pay for religious schools. In most cases, that doesn’t actually give parents a new “choice”; it’s subsidizing the choice they were already going to make—only using taxpayer money to support religious institutions, which is counter to our nation’s mission of separation of church and state.
Some Jews say, “Who cares?! Give our day schools and yeshivas that green, green money!” Earlier this month, Agudath Israel of America expressed its support for DeVos because school choice is good for yeshivas. Rabbi A.D. Motzen, Agudath Israel’s national director for state affairs, noted that DeVos shows “sincere respect” for the Orthodox community, as shown by what happened at a dinner held by the American Federation for Children (the pro-voucher, pro-tax-credit organization for which DeVos is the chair): “Glatt kosher steak dinners were specially ordered for chairman of Agudah’s board of trustees Shlomo Werdiger and other members of their group.” What more proof do you need that DeVos is Good for the Jews?
Jews should certainly ignore the fact that DeVos’s gazillionaire family is one of the nation’s top funders of the Christian right, donating to organizations like the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes as a hate group, and Focus on the Family, which has called the battle against LGBT rights a “second civil war” to determine America’s future. (DeVos dissembled during her Senate testimony when asked about being an officer of her family’s foundation, which donated huge sums to Focus on the Family. When presented with evidence showing that she was listed as vice president of the charity, she said this was a clerical error. One going back annually for nearly 20 years, oddly enough. Nu, is lying a Jewish value?) DeVos has also served on the board of the Acton Institute, which fights against environmental regulation; one of the organization’s fellows also works for an alliance that calls environmentalism a cult attacking Christianity. Tell me, is this aligned with baal tashchit, the Jewish value of protecting and preserving the planet? Another board on which DeVos has served is the Foundation for Traditional Values, which wants to blur the boundaries between church and state. In 2001, she told The Gathering, a group whose name is not at all sinister and which is dedicated to “advancing Christian faith through philanthropy”: “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Jews ought to beware of getting into bed with people whose fervent desire is to advance God’s kingdom. It has rarely worked out well for us. As Jewish writer Jay Michaelson said about Orthodox Jews aligning themselves with DeVos, “These fools are modern-day Esaus, exchanging the birthright of American democracy for a bowl of voucher porridge.”
It’s not as though our own Jewish schools can afford the lack of transparency and accountability that characterizes charter schools. The New York City Department of Education is investigating “whether three dozen private yeshivas are providing an adequate education in secular subjects like English, math, and science, in response to a letter from parents, former students and former teachers expressing concerns.” The Orthodox Jews who are “snitching” on these yeshivas have provided the Department of Education with evidence of textbooks with some subjects “blacked out,” and report cards for high school boys with “no secular subjects at all.” Some yeshivas reportedly give elementary and middle school children only an hour-and-a-half of English and math instruction (combined) four days a week, and English language arts aren’t taught at all to boys past bar mitzvah age.
Oddly, when vouchers and federal funds go to Jewish schools, they may dilute the schools’ mission. The Times of Israel recently presented the example of an Ohio Jewish day school that has expanded massively in the wake of the state’s school-voucher program. In that state, more than a quarter of the roughly 3,000 students in Jewish day schools get vouchers; elementary schoolers get $4,650 in annual aid from the state government, and high school students get $6,000. Now, only 18 of Akiva Academy’s 152 students are Jews. What, precisely, is the mission of a Jewish day school that overwhelmingly educates non-Jews?
It’s not just observant Jews who love vouchers, charters, and privatization. New Yorker Eva Moskowitz, who runs the Success Network of charters (founded by two hedge-fund managers), is a huge DeVos booster. Shortly after DeVos’ disastrous Senate appearance, Moskowitz tweeted, “[email protected] has the talent, commitment, and leadership capacity to revitalize our public schools and deliver the promise of opportunity.” Moskowitz certainly stands to profit from DeVos’ confirmation: She earns nearly half-a-million dollars a year, far more than the NYC schools chancellor, and her charter network last year received an $8.5 million donation from hedge funder John Paulson, a big Trump donor. Unlike the vast majority of Michigan’s charters, Success Network students do well on standardized tests. (They should. Their entire curriculum is focused on test prep.) But critics note that achievement often comes at the expense of kindness. Last year a video surfaced of one Success Network school’s teacher berating and publicly humiliating a first-grader for a wrong answer. Dozens of other Success Network teachers and former teachers noted that such conduct was common. This is antithetical to Jewish values. The Success Network is also known for kicking out students who fail to keep up, which public schools don’t do. Public schools require that all students receive an education.
This includes students with disabilities. And this, too, should matter to Jews. DeVos has no experience—and indeed, no demonstrated interest—in helping public schools improve their special-education programs. During her hearing, she clearly didn’t understand that enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is federal law; she said she wanted to leave it up to the states. After being challenged, DeVos wrote a follow-up letter to a committee member praising voucher programs that pay for special education … but failed to note that such programs require parents to sign a waiver giving up all special education due-process rights they have under IDEA. As Sen. Margaret Wood Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire who has a child with disabilities, noted afterward, “While I’m glad Mrs. DeVos clarified that she is no longer confused about whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law … her letter does nothing to reassure me that she will enforce the IDEA or honor our commitment to ensuring that all students receive a free and appropriate public education. In addition, Mrs. DeVos failed to address the original question I posed to her in her confirmation hearing, which was about why she is comfortable with voucher programs that force parents and students to sign away their rights under IDEA. … Between her lack of experience with public education, her support for diverting taxpayer dollars to private schools without accountability requirements, and her lack of understanding of the challenges facing students with disabilities, Mrs. DeVos has shown herself to be completely unqualified for this position—and her recent letter has only reinforced that she is unfit to serve as secretary of education. I will vote against Mrs. DeVos’ nomination and I urge my colleagues to do the same.” Given that Matan, the organization for Jewish kids with special needs, notes that up to 20 percent of kids have a learning disability and that around 200,000 children in the Jewish community have special needs, we Jews should fight for all children’s rights to the best possible education.
In short, public schools deserve our full support, whether our own children attend them or Jewish schools or other private schools.
You know the saying: Al tifrosh min hatzibur. Don’t separate yourself from the community. As I’ve noted in the past, being Jewish means worrying about everyone’s children, not just our own. It means understanding that living in a democracy means having responsibility for each other—all of us, of all backgrounds. We all need and deserve good education. Education shouldn’t be a tool to enrich the already wealthy. And we Jews should tell that to Betsy DeVos.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.