Thursday, March 2, 2017

Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education, and the Constitution


Some weeks ago my friends were lamenting the slew of bills introduced by the new Republican Congress.



Dakota: Have you heard about the bill to get rid of the department of Education yet?



Alexis: THE. WHAT.



Carey: I'm totally being nosy but whatever. Lol but yes, they're saying that schools will be governed by states and localities, which in my opinion will only encourage even more inequality and segregation because states will start to use that to push economic agendas.



Dakota: Not nosy at all Carey! I'm glad you came in with more info. I wasn't aware of their "reasoning" yet.



Carey: and Ill just add that 10% of money come from the ED, which doesn't seem like lot BUT that also comes with upholding Civil Rights ie. like the Brown v Board decision. So the dismantling of ED would be awful, zero accountability.



Dakota: 😩😫😩 what are we going to do if they follow through on this crap... it doesn't feel beyond the realm of reality anymore



Alexis: Ahh returning regulation back to states and localities. The push for privatization. Smh. They're all terrible greedy people.



Me:  ^No we're not.



Alexis: Andrew Doris you're in congress?



Me: No, but I agree with some of the people you're calling terrible and greedy due to what they believe, and would vote as they're voting on the Dept. of Education., federalism, enumerated federal powers, etc. To say (or directly imply) a group of people are terrible and greedy because they believe XYZ is to imply the same about anyone else who also believes XYZ.



Sorry to hijack your commiseration - I'm appalled by Trump too and on another day I'd join in. I'm just flustered right now by everyone talking past one another and arguing in bad faith on the few issues that might yet advance under him. Supporting conservative education reform does not = wanting to hurt kids to make money. Smart and well intentioned people often disagree about this stuff. I literally stand zero to profit from those initiatives and nor do most who agree with me, including conservative Congressmen; chalking them up to "ugh they're all so greedy!" is just lazily avoiding the nuance of the issues.



Alexis: Andrew Doris I respect what you're getting at. But I stand by my assertion that congress people (on both sides of the aisle) are more aligned to maintaining their own power and financial interests than they are in the "right" choices for education for all kids. I respect ideological differences, I don't respect greed. And I work directly with education and housing policy so I have particularly strong opinions about the current regime changes and their plans.



Dave: Andrew Doris curious as to your opinion on Betsy DeVos in general. From what I understand, she doesn't have real/serious experience in education, so how can anyone reasonably claim she's the best (or even among the best) candidates for the position?





Brock: Dave, here's a pretty good piece on her:






the last paragraph is kinda of horrifying since it is a direct quote.





Me: Dave - thanks for asking - lots to say.



1. My opinion on Betsy DeVos in general is strongly positive. I support her nomination because she is perhaps the foremost champion of school choice in the country, and I believe (like very many independent and even left-leaning experts, including some of my center-left professors at Hopkins) that school choice is the single reform that stands to most benefit our education system (and especially disadvantaged students). I recognize that the impetus for school choice must come from the state and local level and don't think DeVos will be a panacea, but with DeVos in charge I can at least be sure the Federal Govt. won't try to get in the way of those initiatives or make them harder to implement, which has happened in the past. (That's also part of why I don't think the Department of Education should exist at all, with the other reasons being it's poor track record and the pesky fact that it's plainly unconstitutional).


2. I disagree that DeVos doesn't have any "real/serious" experience in education; on the contrary, she has been vigorously and intimately involved in education activism for almost thirty years. According to her Wikipedia page she founded an institution funding education reform back in 1989, was chairwoman of the board of Alliance for School Choice, founded an education PAC called All Children Matter in 2003, was on the boards of directors for the American Education Reform Council, Advocates for School Choice, and the Education Freedom Fund, and chaired the boards for Choices for Children and Great Lakes Education Project. She remains Chair of the American Federation for Children and in the 90's she served on the board for Children First America. She has clearly devoted her life to education issues! She also had executive business experience back in the 80's.



If that doesn't count as experience, what does? Being a teacher is not the sort of experience that deals with national-level education issues. Obama's appointee Arne Duncan wasn't a teacher either, and was also a multi-millionaire, but nobody cared because he was union-friendly. Senator Warren's only attempted "gotcha!" thing on experience during the hearing was her lack of experience dishing out $70 billion worth of loans, which was ironic because if we limit the acceptable candidates to those who have managed such massive loan portfolios, we're left pulling from the exact group of people whose influence Senator Warren most hopes to extricate from politics: big bankers.



3. IRT Brock’s article, I find nothing horrifying about it, including the last quote. It's obvious the "return on investment" she is referring to is not selfish financial gain, and she says as much. Nothing about her 30 years of tireless effort and hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropy poured in to this cause has been a profitable endeavor, and the family is so rich they hardly have incentive to start running small-time private schools anyway. Like the George Soros or Koch brothers, their wealth frees them to pursue un-profitable causes they care deeply about to try and feel good about themselves for making a positive difference in the world. There is nothing immoral about funding causes you believe in, and it's clear she believes very passionately that she is dedicating her time and fortune to helping poor people get a better education.



You may disagree with her on that, but don't pretend it's the same as corruption. Certainly the other side does the same. It's widely known that the bulk of DeVos' opposition came from the teacher's union lobby, which dump vastly more money into influencing politics in their direction than the entire DeVos family combined. The line of thought on the left these days seems to be that if you donate money to progressive causes you have a big heart, but if you donate to conservative causes it's pure graft and ominous big-money puppeteers buying rents. If anything about her nomination was bought with big-money, it was the fierce opposition to her on grounds of preposterous non-issues like the out-of-context Grizzly Bear quote, making it seem like she was a complete dullard or a religious fanatic. None of that is true.



Dakota -

(1) Sure, experience as a teacher doesn't have to be a prerequisite for this position. But some semblance of an understanding of current US law surrounding education should be. DeVos demonstrated a lack of understanding or even basic preparation to understand this during her confirmation hearing.

(2) In my opinion, every student in the U.S. should have the opportunity to attend a school that (a) isn't falling apart, (b) is equipped with trained staff, (c) is prepared to educated them, and (d) has the materials and funding to do so. States shouldn't have an option to choose whether they want to do with this all students. For example, disabled students should have the same rights to education in every state, something DeVos would not commit to saying she would uphold on a federal level. Also, it's incredibly concerning to me that she wants to take funding AWAY from public schools and put them toward private schools.

Schools in my neighborhood are LITERALLY crumbling. One of our schools shut down for a few months a year ago because the ceiling tiles literally fell in in a classroom. Okay? Please let's not provide LESS FUNDING to our struggling public schools.

(3) On that note, forgive me if I find it a little bit gross that someone pours 100s of millions of dollars into a political machine and comes out in charge of an entire national system, in which she has expressed plans to take money out of the already underfunded public program and put it into the already wealthy programs.

There is nothing unprofitable about their pursuits in education. Even if they lose money (which I doubt they do, but even if they do) they're gaining an immense amount of social capital and influence through this.

(4) I grew up in public schools. GOOD public schools. And my schools were cramped. In high school we had to use trailer classrooms because the school was so overcrowded we couldn't fit all the students in the building at once. Our books were not great either. And I went to some of the nicer public schools in the areas I grew up in NJ and VA.

We need someone who's ready to take on the issues inside public schools, not divert attention away. What's going to happen to the kids who can't get into a charter school or a private school under DeVos? What on earth is she going to do for them?





Me: Hi Dakota.  I’ll go in order of the points you numbered:

(1) I concede DeVos did not acquit herself well in the hearing.  I don’t think that means she lacks “even basic understanding” of the Education system.  Most of the videos I saw of her were Senators asking her lawyerly, accusatorial questions that pre-supposed liberal assumptions, which she couldn’t answer clearly only because she doesn’t share those assumptions.

(2) I agree with a, b, c and d.  So does DeVos.  Where we disagree with you is simply on whether federal regulators are any likelier than state regulators to guarantee that opportunity.


I don’t know where you live, but I suspect that part of the reason schools in your neighborhood are “LITERALLY crumbling” is because they are run by government officials, who are unexposed to the market pressures which typically prevent businesses from falling into disrepair (in other words, because of public monopoly). If your goal is like mine - to, as you put it, ensure that “every student in the US has the opportunity to attend a school” that meets your four criteria a b c and d – it seems to me the students in your neighborhood currently forced to attend that crumbling school should be given the chance to attend a different school if they like.  Whether that different school is public or private shouldn’t matter.  That’s all school choice is about.



It’s not about “taking money out of the already underfunded public program and put it into the already wealthy programs” – which leads me to your point (3).  First, the problem with public education in this country is not that it’s underfunded.  Per-pupil, inflation adjusted K-12 education spending has tripled since 1970.  Even President Obama admitted that, quote, “not a dime of whatever new money we might spend would do anything – not so long as it is poured into schools as we organize them today. To make education work for all our kids, we need to tear up our current educational system and reorganize it from the ground up." The problem is that public schools are wasteful, poorly organized regional monopolies, and the solution is the same market forces that eliminate waste and inefficiency in every other sector of the economy.  School choice doesn’t take money away from public schools and give them to private schools necessarily; it’s more accurate to say it takes it away from bad schools (public, private or charter) and gives it to good schools (public, private or charter), with good or bad determined SOLELY by the decisions of parents about what they think is best for their children.



(4) You ask: “What's going to happen to the kids who can't get into a charter school or a private school under DeVos? What on earth is she going to do for them?”



The answer: make their current school more responsive to the wants and needs of students like them, while at the same time giving them more options than they currently have.

Even for kids whose parents choose to keep them at their current school, the beauty of competition is that it makes ALL products in the market better.  Comcast sucks because it has regional monopolies in major cities, like Baltimore; Nike and Adidas don’t, because they have to compete with dozens of shoe companies for market share.  The left is the first to point out how important it is to break up monopolies in any other sector, because it’s widely acknowledged that monopolies are a rent paid to powerful interests, and introducing competition helps consumers.  Why is education different?  The worst-case scenario is better public schools.


The best-case scenario for those students is that they do indeed get to pick a school better tailored to their own interests or abilities. “Getting into” a charter or private school usually isn’t like gaining admission to a selective college where there are stringent academic standards.  Especially at the elementary level, the main thing holding back students trapped in bad schools is cost: inability to afford those better private options. School vouchers fix that.  From trade schools to arts-heavy schools to sports-heavy schools to schools for people with various disabilities, markets allow for customization that uniform, one-size-fits-all public education simply doesn’t, and that makes everybody happier with their education outcomes.



Brock – If you think Betsy DeVos running a PAC is unprofitable, then i really don't know where to start. And pardon me. It sounds to me that you're basically advocating for a plutocracy. You don't say it clearly here, but your arguments are tacitly opposing campaign finance reform as well, which i find really really alarming.


Also, i don't know if you know about the School Choice Alliance, but their system of providing scholarships to charter schools or private schools, does NOT yield a meritocracy and to think as much is plain ignorant of educational issues. A student living Hollywood or Beverly Hills is much more likely to win a scholarship than the kid from south central LA simply because he has more guidance, free time (many low-income students have to work at 16), access to educational material, extra-curricular, etc.


Also a dig at the Education Department being unconstitutional.... If your referring to michelle bachmann's assertion that education should be left to localities and states. Well, I purely disagree cuz there are somethings that are facts and need to be enforced at the federal level in schools. Rural areas where schools can get away with teaching creationism, that the world is 6,000 years old, or that climate change is not real, is really not acceptable today. This whole unconstitutional argument is bullshit and a traditionalist viewpoint is unsustainable. Quite frankly everything is unconstitutional until someone writes it in the constitution. African American's voting was unconstitutional until we amended it. Women's right to vote was unconstitutional until it wasn't. So forgive me if i dont hold reverance for some 240 year old document that slave owners (brave and forward thinking slave owners mind you) drew up because they felt they didnt have political representation (oh the irony).



Me: Hi Brock.  Lots to respond to with you too.

Please explain to me how DeVos has made money from her 30 years of activism for school choice.  I sincerely don’t see how.  For sure, political rent-seeking in general is very profitable, which is part of the reason it’s so important to reduce the rents politicians have to offer.  But to my knowledge, DeVos does not run any franchise of private schools where she’d be in a position to make money from a transition to school choice nationwide.  And certainly, she was already a billionaire before she took up the cause, with lots of more lucrative ways to make money then trying to gradually nudge policy.

I will spare you the hassle of inference – I do oppose campaign finance regulation.  That is not the same as advocating plutocracy.  Even setting aside constitutional considerations, the purest plutocracy is a set of 535 entrenched politicians invulnerable to electoral challenge.  Campaign finance regulations are problematic in part because they often serve as “incumbent protection acts” by making Congressmen much more difficult to unseat.  In any case, the link between campaign funding and electoral success is tenuous, and the government shouldn’t be censoring political speech from reaching its citizens’ ears no matter how much it costs nor who wants to fund it.



I’m a little confused by your meritocracy argument, because none of the disadvantages you listed are unique to an elective school system.  Yes, wealthier students with more free time, resources and parental involvement are more likely to succeed academically and gain admission to the most competitive private schools – but this is also true in the status quo, so it’s not an argument against school choice.  If anything, school voucher programs help negate this problem by narrowing the gaps in resources that currently allow only the wealthiest students to attend private schools.


Now let’s talk about the constitution.  I don’t have reverence for the judgment of slave owners from 240 years ago either, but I do have reverence for the concept of political legitimacy.  If we are to even pretend that we are a nation governed of, by, and for the people, the government has to be able to point to some widely popular and agreed-upon social contract as the source of its authority to wield force on those people.  That contract is the only thing that separates government from the Mafia or a common gang, which may have unwritten rules, but doesn’t pretend to be a singular moral authority ruling by consent over every inhabitant of a certain territory.  As a libertarian, I’m willing to entertain the idea that the entire constitution is bullshit – but if that’s true, the implication isn’t that the government has MORE power/authority and can do whatever it wants!  The implication is anarchy – that the government has no authority at all – because that document is the only thing that gave it any. 



So for your sake, as an advocate of greater government powers than I prefer, let’s assume the constitution is not bullshit, but is in fact morally authoritative and legally binding.  In that case, you are quite right that “everything is unconstitutional until someone writes it in the constitution” – so do tell me, when did someone write the power to regulate education into the constitution?  I can’t seem to find where that’s written.  I CAN see where voting rights for black people and women were added, in the 15th and 19th amendments, respectively.  If you concede education-related powers are not written in there yet, but think the federal government OUGHT have the power to regulate education moving forward, perhaps you should propose a 28th amendment granting it this power, and then we could debate the merits of that.  But until such time, it’s not a “traditionalist viewpoint” to expect politicians to follow the law they’ve each sworn to support and uphold.





Dakota: Andrew I'd be happy to continue this conversation in a message if you're open to it but broadly speaking I think our different perspectives come down to trust, historical precedent, and having something to lose.



I don't trust that the states will dispense education fairly across the spectrums of wealth, race, disability, etc.



History tells me that if the states had control of education I would not have been able to attend the same school as you. And my school would not have been as equipped as yours. I am not white.



My neighborhood is made up of mostly lower-income, Black residents. We had a really successful public high school a few decades ago. It burned down. There's still speculation as to how. But the fact is students were split up until the next one was ready and it was an entirely different story after that.



It's clear to me that you're not indifferent to this issue Andrew, which I really appreciate and which is why I'd be happy to continue the conversation if you're open to hearing more of my perspective and what it's rooted in.



Me: Hey Dakota, I’d always meant to message you after that discussion we had on Betsy DeVos and the Education Department but I hadn’t gotten around to it until now.  I am open and interested to hear more of your perspective so hopefully you’re still up for the discussion – but if not, just tell me and I’ll get lost!  There’s a TL;DR version at the bottom in case you don’t feel like reading all of it.



I can totally understand and appreciate this historical reasons why you “don’t trust that the state governments will dispense education fairly across all spectrums of wealth, race and disability, etc.”  They historically have not.  I don’t trust them either.



I’m sincerely curious, though, why you would trust the federal government to do that any better?  That’s where we differ:  I don’t trust them either.  As I’m sure you know, the feds also have a long history of racial oppression in their own policies.  FDR basically built the New Deal off the backs of black people, for instance, and Nixon or Reagan’s War on Drugs targeted them as well.  I don’t know which state you live in, and I’ll concede that some have historically been even more regressive than the federal government.  But especially now that Trump is in charge, it seems to me that the more powers we devolve from the federal level to the state level, the more likely those powers will be wielded in a responsible or progressive way.



This isn’t limited to education.  This are lots of issues on which the states disagree with one another: marijuana legalization, gay marriage, right to work, the minimum wage, healthcare, etc.  On these issues, the federal government has two options: it can allow each state to do their own thing, or it can overrule them all and enforce its own, one-size-fits-all policy on all 50 states.  Which we prefer on a case-by-case basis will likely vary based on what our federal leaders presently hold on that issue, but unfortunately we can’t pick and choose which times states’ have rights; if we want to be ideologically consistent about federalism, we have to decide which general stance we find most conducive to liberty and progress.  To me, it seems clear it’s typically better for liberty and progress (not to mention more in line with the 10th amendment of the constitution) if we generally allow states to each do their own thing.



My reasoning is this…society progresses at different paces in different places.  Every time we make progress as a society, some states are ready for that change faster than others.  And, every time we make a mistake as a society, some states push for it more eagerly than others.  Take the War on Drugs; states rights’ are proving super important there!  Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance and has stiff mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, which are really stupid and oppressive, especially for minorities and the underprivileged.  But thankfully, dozens of states have legalized medicinal marijuana and several have legalized it outright, all in defiance of federal law.  More follow suit every year.



As a progressive, you probably oppose the war on drugs too, and likely agree with me that this is a good thing the states are doing this. When the federal government sets policies we disagree with, we as socially tolerant people value the ability of more progressive states to set more progressive policies without being interfered with (perhaps like the minimum wage in Seattle, for another example).  Eventually, as other states see that the sky hasn’t fallen in those progressive states, change becomes less scary and they become more willing to experiment with these changes themselves.  Inversely, if a state passes a law that doesn’t go so well, other states can heed that warning and avoid the same mistake BEFORE it’s implemented all across the country.  And in the interim, people who prefer to live under one set of policies over another can “vote with their feet” by choosing to live in a state that agrees with them (more easily than they can move to a whole different country if they disagree with national policy).  This “laboratories of democracy” principle helps prevent wrongheaded national majorities or pluralities (like the one that elected Trump!) from imposing bad policies on all of us.



The flip side of that coin, though, is if we want to be ideologically consistent, we have to allow states rights’ even when some states disagree with us.  So if we value it on drug reform, how can we oppose it on education reform?



TL;DR – You said you think our differing perspectives come down to “trust, historical precedent, and having something to lose.”  You’re certainly right about two of those things: you do have more to lose, and I’m sure you understand the historical precedent on a more personal level than I will ever be able to grasp.  I sympathize with that and respect your perspective. But when it comes to trust, I don’t think I’m any more trusting than you are overall; it’s more a question of, “which institutions do you trust more, and why?”

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