Thanksgiving is, of course, about giving thanks, while being mindful of an America that has not always treated people fairly. This year, there is a lot to take stock of, as President-elect Donald Trump, in the midst of populating his cabinet, selected Elisabeth (Betsy) DeVos to be his Secretary of Education.
I’ve been joking that Ben Carson – Trump’s pick to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – primary qualification is that he grew up in a house. But Betsy DeVos attended private schools and sent her children to them.
Her qualification to be Secretary of Education? She doesn’t even have that going for her.
So what’s the worst that could happen? This question has two distinct connotations. On the one hand, asking “What’s the worst that could happen?” may be a way of sidestepping catastrophic thinking, a common feature of psychological anxiety in which people systematically and irrationally overstate the likelihood of a negative event.
Psychologists treating individuals with this kind of negative thought distortion will help them to challenge the distortions, and to substitute an alternative, rational thought. In this context, asking “What’s the worst that could happen?” is a way of sensitizing people to the fact that the worst-case scenario hasn’t happened to others they know, and is extremely unlikely to happen to them, too.
"I’ve been joking that Ben Carson's primary qualification to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is that he grew up in a house. But Betsy DeVos attended private schools and sent her children to them."
That’s why I decided to take a hard look at two distinctly possible scenarios of “What’s the worst that could happen?” under a federal Department of Education led by Betsy DeVos.
Scenario #1: DeVos moves quickly to implement President-Elect Trump’s plan to use $20 billion of federal funds for block grants to states to support vouchers for poor children to attend private schools. With support from the Republican majority in Congress, she zeroes out the $15 billion currently allocated to Title I, the federal program devoted to providing equal access to primary and secondary education, particularly for children in poverty. The new initiative has incentives for states to treat the block grants solely as a funding stream and to provide minimal oversight of the schools that students attend with the voucher funds.
As he did on the campaign trail, President-elect Trump calls on states to buttress this $20 billion with $110 billion from their own coffers. His powers of persuasion are great; early successes in the administration give states the confidence that this is a good investment, and they reallocate their budgets to create this larger pool of $130 billion to provide a voucher of approximately $12,000 for every school-aged child in poverty in the U.S. At the state level, funds that were targeted for local education agencies are diverted to vouchers for individual children, a sharp loss in the funding that states historically have provided to school districts.
Money is siphoned from traditional public schools and towards a diverse array of unregulated for-profit and private providers. School quality takes a back seat to marketing, as the only measure of success is a school’s ability to attract students who bring public dollars with them. Schools rely on ridiculous marketing ploys, advertising “themes” and practices designed to draw students.
For example, a private or charter school might advertise its behavioral practices. “The handshake represents the quintessential spirit of [our school],” one might read on a school’s website. “It’s the attribute that leaves an indelible impression upon the business leaders, dignitaries and visitors we’re privileged to host almost daily. But we don’t encourage our students to shake hands just to impress—it goes beyond the first impression to instill an attitude of respect when meeting. Giving students the opportunity to practice this important American cultural norm gives our students the edge in college and in life. In addition, showing respect to our guests models our core values and the more we practice it, the more ingrained into our nature it becomes.”
(This quote, by the way, is taken from the website of the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter school founded by Betsy DeVos’ husband Dick. Unlike many charter schools in Michigan, its students are doing pretty well academically.)
Across the country, millions of children enroll in schools whose primary mission is to sustain a flow of dollars, not provide an excellent education. Almost overnight, the percentage of students enrolled in private schools triples from 10 percent to 30 percent, and the percentage enrolled in charter schools triples from 6 percent to 18 percent.
Coupled with a steady state of 3 percent homeschooling, for the first time in American history, a majority of school-aged children are not enrolled in traditional public schools. States have no consistent mechanisms for holding private schools, charter schools, and homeschooling families accountable for student performance, and American achievement spirals downward.
The shift of funds away from public school districts creates further stresses on traditional public schools. They are deprived of longstanding resources that compensate for the unwillingness of most states to provide adequate levels of funding for those districts that lack the capacity to raise enough money from local property tax revenues.
As traditional public schools wither and close, more and more families are drawn to the unregulated private sector.
"Scenario #1 represents catastrophic thinking. Scenario #2 is a more realistic projection, in my view, intended as a counter to the exaggerated features of Scenario #1. But how much more realistic is it? After all, I didn’t expect to be referring to Donald Trump as the President-elect today."
The loss of funds for traditional public schools makes teaching less attractive, and existing teachers leave the field in droves. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs plummets; these programs are unable to provide a sufficient supply of replacement teachers for local school districts, even as fewer teachers are needed.
The unregulated charter and private school sectors hire individuals with no formal preparation or commitment to teaching, and these schools function as revolving doors. Lacking a stable teaching force, even those private and charter schools aspiring to help their teachers develop professionally are stymied.
Then there are the consequences of the federal voucher plan for global warming—I actually do have a story about that—but let me stop there…
Scenario #2: DeVos moves quickly to implement President-Elect Trump’s plan to use $20 billion of federal funds for block grants to states to support vouchers for poor children to attend private schools. But she tussles with Congress over where the money is to come from. Though many Republican leaders are sympathetic to smaller government, they do not want to revisit the three-year process of reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The resulting Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed by President Obama in 2015 after 86 percent of House members and 88 percent of voting Senators supported it.
Congress historically has bristled when the Executive Branch has sought to do an end run around what it views as its authority. (I’m talking to you, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.)
As DeVos goes out on the stump to promote the plan and to gain state support, she finds considerable resistance at the state level. Her previous successes in promoting choice and privatization via targeted campaign contributions to state legislators in selected states don’t transfer to the broader national playing field.
Though she is able to secure the support of wealthy donors who support free markets and deregulation, the state-level appetite for vouchers is spotty. Even in her home state of Michigan, where she chaired the state Republican Party, she was unsuccessful in promoting legislation for vouchers for students to attend private schools.
Although her organization, All Children Matter (ACM), claims a 121-60 record “won-loss” record in state and local legislative races with significant ACM involvement, that pattern has not resulted in states adopting plans which provide vouchers for students to attend private schools. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 13 states and the District of Columbia have state-funded school voucher plans. But in seven of those states, eligibility is limited to students with disabilities or students residing in districts that do not operate any public schools.
Failing to make much headway on vouchers, and wasting valuable time denouncing the Common Core standards still supported by most states, DeVos regroups. She develops Race to the Top 2.0, a federal program with incentives for schools to expand statewide caps on charter schools, and wooing states with heightened flexibility in implementing the provisions of ESSA. As was true for the original Race to the Top, the program has virtually no consequences for the number of private schools in a state or their enrollments.
Many states submit applications, thrilled at the opportunity to be able to customize their ESSA implementation plans to local conditions. Congress grumbles, but the program goes forward. States with existing regulation of the charter sector, though, are reluctant to relinquish their controls.
Governors, state legislators, and state education departments must contend with voters, egged on by national and local teacher unions, who are wary that charter school expansion might rob traditional public schools of necessary resources. Some of the resulting expansion is in the form of virtual charter schools providing online instruction to students who might not otherwise have access to the curricula and courses they desire.
The rhetoric coming from the President-elect and Secretary DeVos is sharp and nasty, bashing “failing government schools” and the teachers who support and work in them. Teachers are demoralized, and there is a drop in applications to teacher preparation programs across the country.
Progress on the privatization agenda is thus incremental and segmented, with the greatest strides in states that were already predisposed to vouchers and charter school expansion.
Homeschooling increases at a much faster rate than private and charter school enrollments. By the year 2020, 5 percent of school-aged children are home-schooled, 10 percent are enrolled in charter schools, and the percentage of students in private schools has fallen to 8 percent. More than three-quarters of American children and youth are enrolled in traditional public schools.
Federal education policy has a bounded impact; global warming remains a grave problem.
Here, then, are two different scenarios for “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Although I began with the disabling features of anxiety, there are individuals for whom imagining the worst is deeply ingrained not as a thought distortion, but rather as a worldview emerging from personal experience. My in-laws, for example, were both survivors of the Holocaust.
In the years following, as they tried to reconstruct a sense of a “normal life,’ they saw the world as an extremely dangerous place, and sought to protect their children from countless bad events that were unlikely to occur. (A case in point: Last week, my wife told her mother, who is hanging in there at the age of 95, that she took the train from New York City to Washington, DC for a conference. “By yourself?! Without Aaron?!” she exclaimed. Apparently my very presence can ward off danger.)
So, there we have it with new education secretary DeVos. What’s the worst that could happen?
Scenario #1 represents catastrophic thinking. Scenario #2 is a more realistic projection, in my view, intended as a counter to the exaggerated features of Scenario #1. But how much more realistic is it? After all, I didn’t expect to be referring to Donald Trump as the President-elect today.
So, Doctor. Shall we get started?
Aaron Pallas is TC's Arthur I. Gates Professor of Sociology & Education