President Donald J. Trump’s pick of billionaire school choice advocate Betsy DeVos to head up the U.S. Department of Education is bad for Indian country, say some educators.
Dr. Tommy Lewis, superintendent of schools for the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education, says, “She is not coming from the education arena; she has never been a teacher, principal, superintendent, college professor or university administrator. [The position] deserves someone who understands how schools operate. Can she really be the national education leader we need?”
Dr. Dean Chavers’ answer is an emphatic no. “I think she is a foe of education. She is a right-winger who hates the Department of Education and has said so. She’s in favor of charter schools and a voucher system, all of which is anathema to public education.” Chavers, Lumbee, is director of Catching the Dream, a Native American education and scholarship organization.
The Education Department’s programs and initiatives affect the 50 million elementary and secondary students who attend the nation’s 98,000 public and 32,000 private schools. The vast majority of American Indian and Alaska Native students go to public school.
School Choice Zealot
Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, backed Michigan’s successful charter school law in 1993, and in 2000, they spent millions to push an amendment that would have changed Michigan’s constitution to require the state to pay for tuition vouchers for students in failing districts. Forbes rates Richard DeVos, Betsy’s father-in-law, as 88th on its Forbes 400 list and estimates the family wealth at $5.1 billion.
After the amendment failed to pass, the DeVoses founded the Great Lakes Education Project, a political action committee that promotes their educational goals. Betsy DeVos sat on the board until she resigned after receiving this appointment by Trump. In 2006, the DeVoses started the All Children Matter political action committee, which supports pro-school voucher candidates. Betsy DeVos and her husband were later instrumental in setting up Detroit’s charter school system.
So what effect did the DeVos education campaign have in Michigan?
National Assessment of Educational Program (NAEP) scores for Michigan students for 2011 and 2015 shows slight declines in performance at grades 4 and 8 for math and again at both grades for reading. In 2015, the average reading score for Michigan 4th graders was 216, compared with 221 for the nation as a whole, and exactly the same as the Michigan 4th grade reading score in 1998.
In grade 8, the average reading score was 264, the same as the national average but one point lower than the 8th grade reading score for Michigan students in 2002. Grade 4 students in Michigan scored 236 in mathematics, 4 points below the national average, but 7 points above their score in 2000. In grade 8, Michigan students scored 278 in mathematics, 3 points below the national average and only 1 point above the Michigan grade 8 score in 2000.
The take-away: With only one exception (grade 4 mathematics), education reform in Michigan—including the huge increase in the number of charter schools—touted by the DeVoses appears to have had virtually no effect whatsoever on student achievement over the past 15 years.
And schools in Detroit are in shocking condition. Detroit began participating in the NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment in 2009. In 2015, the district had the worst scores of all 21 participating urban districts in 4th and 8th grade mathematics and reading. Only 5 percent of 4th graders and 4 percent of 8th graders were proficient in mathematics, compared with an average of 32 percent of 4th graders and 26 percent of 8th graders in other large cities.
Results were equally dismal in reading, where again Detroit scored at the very bottom. Only 6 percent of 4th graders and 7 percent of 8th graders were proficient in reading, compared to an average 27 percent and 25 percent respectively of students in other large cities.
In both math and reading, there was no change in scores between 2013 and 2015 for students in Detroit. But grade 4 reading scores declined noticeably between 2011 and 2015, while grade 8 reading scores remained the same. Grade 4 math scores went up slightly, but grade 8 math scores declined.
Many American Indian students attend school in large urban centers such as Los Angeles and Chicago, so it is worth noting that the DeVos education strategy has clearly failed in Michigan’s largest city.
But Betsy DeVos remains a staunch advocate of charter schools. In 2009, she helped found the American Federation for Children, a national nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes school choice, school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs and Education Savings Accounts, which she led until she received Trump’s nod.
American Federation for Children
At AFC’s policy summit in May, DeVos talked about how successful the organization has been in promoting school choice, “We are winning in state after state. In the past six years, we’ve doubled the number of private school choice programs to 50, the number of private school choice states to 25, plus Washington, D.C., and doubled the number of students currently benefiting from private school choice to 400,000. All told, together, we’ve helped more than a million kids in private school choice programs, and we’re just getting started.”
The day after the election, and two weeks before President-elect Trump picked her for the Education Department, DeVos issued this statement: “AFC has already begun to pave the way for bold school choice advancement on the federal level and we look forward to working with the Trump-Pence Administration and Congress to ensure every child has equal access to a quality school of their parents’ choice.”
Last summer, the AFC produced a video, “America’s Underdogs,” about education on American Indian reservations. The video shamelessly exploited Native kids in order to back the Native American Education Opportunity Act introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The bill, if it passes, will start the process of using federal funds to undermine the country’s public school systems.
National Indian Education Association Board President Patricia Whitefoot, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, opposed the McCain legislation in her testimony during a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing, and the NIEA remains strongly opposed, says Executive Director Ahniwake Rose. “Federal funding should not be moving over to a private school system. [Those funds should not] move out of our tribally-run school system and move to a system that does not require consultation and does not require active engagement of Native communities.”
However, Rose, Cherokee Nation/Muscogee Creek, says more charter schools could be good for AI/AN kids. “We are interested in what school choice might mean in Indian country. Charter schools have been incredibly successful for tribes and for Native communities as ways to preserve our language, our culture and our ways of knowing for our students. So we’re excited if we’re able to continue to think about flexibility and local and Native control of education with this new administration.”
Native American Rights Fund attorney Melodie McCoy, Cherokee, says there is “a fair amount of [tribal] support…in certain states like Oklahoma for charter schools. Oklahoma is one of the first states to allow tribes to operate or contract out charters. There are a number of tribes in Oklahoma that are very interested in that option.”
She adds, “I believe in tribal sovereignty and choice, period. For the communities that need the public schools to serve tribal kids well, we don’t want any of those programs at the national level or at the state level to be affecting services and programs that Indian kids are supposed to be getting. It all has to work together.’ She notes that it will be important that “whoever the new secretary selects to work on Indian education programs makes it a point to understand Indian law and tribal sovereignty and to listen and work with tribal leaders.”
As education secretary, DeVos would not have control over Bureau of Indian Education schools. The BIE, like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is an agency under the Interior Department. Tony Dearman, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, took over as BIE director in November. But Chavers says he would not be surprised if DeVos tried to defund the BIE.
Betsy DeVos has said that she believes public schools have taken over functions that should belong to churches and that she hopes school choice will help to redress that circumstance. Her position seems to be in keeping with a Republican undertone of Messianic Christianity. In its 2016 Christmas greeting, the Republican National Committee wrote, “Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King,” a statement that many say implies Trump is the new King.
Cheryl Medearis is department chair of teacher education and VP of Academic Affairs at Sinte Gleska University. She has concerns about DeVos: “The choices and the platform that she stands on shows complete lack of understanding about education systems and education in general in Indian country. Even if students [in Indian country] have school choice it’s very limited. It would be probably different schools within the same district or adjoining schools if parents could get them there.”
But DeVos’s religious statements have her especially worried. “It’s a complete lack of understanding about different groups of people and belief systems,” she says.
Rose says, “We are going to be keeping an eye on what’s happening with Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and look at how we can maintain the momentum that we’ve seen in regard to things specific to Indian country, such as harmful mascots and imagery.”
What happens with the Office for Civil Rights under a Trump administration is a concern for civil rights leaders, as is the nomination of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 32 other human rights groups expressed their concern in a joint December 12 statement, “We are deeply concerned that the President-elect seeks to nominate as a Secretary of Education a candidate whose experience—and lack of experience—calls into question core principles of fairness, equality and a commitment to education. DeVos’ very public support for voucher schemes which siphon away all-too-limited public education funds and fail to provide protection from discrimination and segregation, and her opposition to appropriate oversight of charter schools, run contrary to the department’s mission to ‘promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.’” The groups also cited DeVos’ opposition to affirmative action as a concern.
This story was originally published January 5, 2017.