Betsy DeVos, whose children never attended public schools, may soon lead the nation’s Department of Education. Assuming she is confirmed, care to take a guess what Florida public education will look like four years from now?
Perhaps former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is DeVos’ biggest cheerleader, can provide some insight. He wrote a stirring endorsement of her in Tuesday’s USA Today, coinciding with her hearing before a U.S. Senate confirmation panel.
“Instead of defending and increasing Washington’s power, Betsy will cut federal red tape and be a passionate advocate for state and local control of schools. More importantly, she will empower parents with greater choices and a stronger voice over their children’s education,” Bush wrote.
“In the two decades that I have been actively involved in education reform, I have worked side-by-side with Betsy to promote school choice and put the interests of students first. I know her commitment to children, especially at-risk kids, is genuine and deep.”
Let’s dissect those words.
First, the biggest federal overreach in education was the No Child Left Behind program signed into law in 2002 by Jeb’s brother, President George W. Bush. It had strong bipartisan support in Congress and from the business community, which argued that U.S. public school students were falling behind those from other nations in math and science.
In the name of “accountability” for schools, NCLB mandated a battery of standardized tests for students. It also allowed students from poor-performing schools to transfer to ones with better overall test results.
There were other federal demands on local school districts, including offering free tutoring to students in need. Of course, the money that was supposed to pay for that never quite materialized in the federal budget, and many schools still struggle to provide that service today.
“Accountability” testing has become a raw spot for teachers, who can face reprisals if low-performing don’t improve.
By not “defending and increasing Washington’s power” we would assume DeVos would defer more education power to Florida. That may not be much help. Besides the federal mandates, Florida tacked on many other tests, leading to teacher burnout and complaints they were only “teaching the test” to bored students while Republicans touted charter schools as the answer.
In the next four years, Florida undoubtedly will have many more than the 652 charter schools currently serving more than 270,000 students. That is an increase of 134 charters and about 90,000 more students since Rick Scott took over as governor in 2011.
Public school teachers and administrators complain loudly that some of those charters don’t have to meet the same standards they do and don’t have to accept problem students.
Charter advocates counter that many financially secure people already can (and do) opt out of public education by sending their kids to expensive private schools.
Tampa’s highly regarded Jesuit High School, for instance, charges nearly $15,000 in tuition, plus other fees. Tampa Prep High School charges more than $22,000 a year in tuition, although it also offers needs-based financial help for those who can’t afford to pay full freight.
Offering charter alternatives to students who couldn’t think about getting into schools like that is only fair, advocates say.
It’s a bedrock Republican ideal: private business is better than government programs, and private education (or charter schools) can be a good alternative to public schools in many cases.
Class, let’s review: School “choice” means less money for public education. Hillsborough County, the nation’s ninth-largest school district, already is grappling with severe budget problems. That presumably will get worse.
We will see more private charter schools – probably a lot more.
That will be done over the wailing and teeth-gnashing of Florida Democrats (like that matters, given their general impotency these days) and the state teachers’ union.
Florida Republicans will celebrate that victory with particular vigor.