3 Questions That ‘Created Havoc’ in Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education

By Jeff Bryant, a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm. Produced by Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is famous for giving a nonresponse to fairly straightforward questions. More than one commentator has had fun with her contorted evasions, but her inability to explain the rationale for current education policies isn’t confined to her own personality and ideology. It’s actually been endemic in the education policy world for years, particularly in how the federal government continues to hide its agenda to further privatize the nation’s public school system by creating and expanding charter schools.

Arne Duncan, who served as secretary for the longest period of time before DeVos, was famous for being the consummate non-listener, often talking over people with his prepared remarks and ignoring the advice of teachers and education experts.

This is not a partisan issue. Teachers demanded Duncan’s resignation, and Republican members of Congress have complained that DeVos’ department isn’t responsive to requests for information.

Of course, any comparison between DeVos and Duncan can find some very big differences, but a constant throughout both administrations has been to ignore, wall-off, or obfuscate when confronted with any inquiry aimed at the federal government’s efforts to create and expand charter schools.

A History of Hiding

My latest brush with the education policy edifice’s imperviousness to outside inquiry occurred while researching and writing a new report on the education department’s Charter School Program (CSP). I coauthored the report“ Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride” with Network for Public Education Executive Director Carol Burris.

Burris and I found that up to $1 billion awarded by the CSP—in more than 1,000 grants—was wasted on charter schools that never opened or opened for only brief periods before being shut down for mismanagement, poor performance, lack of enrollment, and fraud.

During our investigations, we came across a previous report published by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) in 2015, during the Obama presidential administration, that found similarly disturbing results, where federal grants had gone to hundreds of charter schools that had basically taken the money and run.

To compile its report, CMD had submitted 33 Freedom of Information Act requests with the Department of Education and was told these records would be forthcoming. The promised records never came.

The department also refused to provide CMD with public records regarding communications between federal and state officials about charter school grants and oversight. The largest grants by far had gone to state education agencies (SEAs) to disburse in subgrants to charter school startups and expansions. Federal officials claimed releasing such information would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

After CMD repeated its requests, the department released a list of some charter schools receiving the SEA grant money in a PDF that was “partly illegible.” Other information CMD requested related to the applications for the state grants never came. CMD concluded in its report summary, “Public information about funds received and spent by charters is severely lacking.”

The information CMD was eventually able to piece together came out in its report in October 2015, receiving widespread coverage by education policy blogs and community organizers.

Two months after the CMD report appeared, the Charter School Program released a dataset showing all grants awarded between school years 2006–07 and 2013–14, with information on grants given to start-up, replicate, and expand charter schools. The dataset was released on December 23—just two days before the holiday break—to minimize attention.

Also in the same year, perhaps in anticipation of the CMD report, the department issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to SEAs emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars. The letter recommended SEAs conduct regular independent audits and strengthen authorizing practices. And the department provided an “Overview of the 2015 CSP SEA Review Process” explaining how the program awarding charter grants to states is administered.

Given the department’s 2015 efforts to disclose information on charter school grants and provide guidance in how the grants should be administered, it seemed only fair, before issuing our report, to ask the agency what had been done since, especially under this new administration.

Three Seemingly Simple Questions

Consequently, on March 8, I sent emails to contacts provided for three CSP grant programs that were the subject of our report. The three emails repeated basically the same three questions, but the email I sent to the contact overseeing the SEA grants, now called “Grants to State Entities,” follows:

This is to inquire about the current grant application review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities. Specifically, in 2015, the Department published an “Overview of the 2015 CSP SEA Review Process.” My questions:

  1. Can you provide a similar document describing how the grant review process is currently being conducted for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities?
  2. If not, can you briefly comment on how the grant review process used for the Charter Schools Program Grants to State Entities aligns with or varies from the Overview referenced above?
  3. Regarding a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to State Education Agencies in 2015 emphasizing the importance of financial accountability for charter schools receiving federal dollars, was there any follow-up by the Charter School Program to ascertain how many SEAs complied with this request and what was the nature of the new systems and processes put into place by SEAs to provide for greater accountability?

On March 15, I received a voicemail message from an official in the public affairs division of the department asking me to call her back. The message started out nice enough but then veered toward criticism. “Apparently you have sent his request to multiple people,” she said (emphasis original), “and that just creates havoc for everyone.”

When I immediately called her back, I explained I had merely sent my inquiry to the contacts provided on the relevant sections of the department’s website. “That’s understandable,” she replied, but for “future reference” I was told to send inquiries to “a director”—though I’m not sure who that is. And I was told again my questions had “created havoc” in the office but that department staff members were “working on it” and would “take a few days.”

As of this writing, I’ve yet to receive any other replies.

One Thing Clear

What followed my phone exchange with the department official was, among other things, a very bad, awful day for the secretary when news of our report broke on page A4 of the Washington Post on the very same day she had to appear on Capitol Hill before a House committee hearing.

During the hearing, Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat of Connecticut, referred directly to our report, citing the $1 billion stain on the department’s charter school grant program, and told DeVos, “This budget is full of cruel cuts to education programs, and it baffles me that you found room for a $60 million increase to the Charter School Program… especially when you consider recent reports of waste and abuse in the program.”

When Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, asked DeVos what was being done to recover the $1 billion in alleged financial mismanagement involving charters, DeVos said she “would look into the matter.”

On the issue of how a federal agency could allow charter operators to rip off American taxpayers with impunity, and generally suffer no adverse consequences for their acts, DeVos acknowledged that waste and fraud in the charter grant program had been around for “some time.”

That much is true.

It was under Arne Duncan’s watch that the federal charter grants program was greatly expanded, states were required to lift caps on the numbers of charter schools in order to receive precious federal dollars, and the administration Duncan served in insulted public school teachers by proclaiming National Charter School Week on dates identical to what had always been observed as Teacher Appreciation Week.

And most of the wanton charter fraud we detailed in our report that ran rampant during the Duncan years is now simply continuing under DeVos, with little to no explanation of why this is allowed to occur.

So at least we have that clear.

To learn more about school privatization, check out Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, a free ebook published by the Independent Media Institute.

Click here to read a selection of Who Controls Our Schools? published on AlterNet, or here to access the complete text

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  1. skippy

    From the waybackmaicheen ….

    January 23, 2016 at 7:20 am

    Ref… Chicago schools…

    Teacher support of Common Core has slipped from 76 percent in 2013 to 40 percent this year, according to the Education Next and Harvard Kennedy School poll.



    What is Common Core… Myth versus Fact

    Common Core is often written by its initials CCSS which stands for Common Core State Standards. The idea of national standards may seem like a good idea. Unfortunately, these national standards have turned into a nightmare for students, parents and teachers. The marketing myth or slogan factory for Common Core is that CCSS is a set of “State led national standards which prepare students to be career and college ready.” In fact, Common Core is Gates led not State led. The standards were hastily written by a few corporate consultants – not by teachers or child development specialists. The Common Core standards were so poorly written that they have been condemned by many educational professionals as being not as good as the prior State standards that CCSS replaced. This is a problem because Common Core standards are patented and do not allow for more than minor changes.

    Worst of all, Common Core Standards do not prepare students for college or careers. For example, even if a student passed all of the math standards by completing the fake common core tests, they would not be ready to take college level courses. Nor would they be ready to get a good paying job. So the whole Common Core program is nothing but a scam based on a series of lies. The real purpose of Common Core is first to create billions of dollars in profit for the Education Industrial Complex and then second to destroy public schools and public school students to such an extent that the general public will demand that public schools be closed and replaced with private for profit schools that are exempt from the Common Core standards.

    Who Owns CCSS?

    The Common Core standards are patented by a couple of fake non-profit groups called the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officials (CCSSO). Both of these groups are unelected, private organizations who get most of their funding (millions of dollars) from Bill Gates through the Gates Foundation. They own the copyright to the Common Core standards. This really means that Bill Gates controls the copyright to Common Core standards.

    Because these two groups are private organizations, there is no public record of how they make decisions.


    Skippy…. love it when a plan comes together….

  2. The Rev Kev

    The United States spends approximately $1 trillion dollars a year on education – public and private – and there are currently over 81 million students enrolled in all levels of education. This being the case, you would expect that you would have your best and brightest in charge as Secretary of Education as you are talking about the future of the United States and its place in the world here. You would think. Well, the subject of Betsy DeVos has come up here before so got curious about her predecessor – Arne Duncan – who was appointed by Obama and who is described here as “famous for being the consummate non-listener, often talking over people with his prepared remarks and ignoring the advice of teachers and education experts.”
    Well I went over to his Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arne_Duncan and what I found was both expected and unexpected. I could see the usual suspects like the University of Chicago, Harvard, charter schools, etc. so he had an inside tract in Chicago. What was unexpected was that after graduating, he came to Australia to play basketball for several years. Basketball was only taking off here back then and a lot of Americans came to play in local teams. Well, you can read the rest yourself but this is not the background of a man who should have ever been entrusted with the nation’s education – and yet he was. All he was was just a small player in Chicago who went straight to the bigs. Last I heard, the US was ranked 27th in education and it was not getting any better. It was rated 18th when Duncan took over. After reading his background, what else is there to say except thanks Obama.

    1. jackiebass

      Obama and Duncan were buddies in Chicago. If you think Duncan wasn’t qualified you shoold read about Betsy DeVos on Wikipedia. It’s shocking and shame on congress for appointing her.

      1. markodochartaigh

        Sadly, because of ignorance or a nihilistic apathy too much of the country chooses instead of fixing the Democratic frying pan to jump into the Republican fire.

  3. Todde

    I always preferred the library to the classroom.

    Charter schools or government schools, its still prison for kids.

    1. Dewey (or don’t we?)

      As a long time high school teacher, I must sadly concur. While some of us try to subvert the institutional values of obedience and conformity and give students the tools to critique the status quo, we must do so by strongly swimming against the tide, and risking our good standing or even our jobs within our school systems. I’ve been fortunate to work (for at least some of my career) for principals, and in communities, that gave a bit of space for dissent and critique. But most of my colleagues, not surprising given the strong institutional culture we’re immersed in, never even give a thought to any sort of critique of what we’re doing to kids, as they’ve internalized those values so deeply.

      1. Brian (another one they call)

        Each of my friends that are teachers have been vocal about the CORE nonsense. It destroyed their ability to teach. All but one are retired early as a result of the interference and dumbing down of their schools.
        Would it be offensive to suggest that the US wants the students ignorant, barefoot and impoverished? If we look at what they have done to our education system, what else could explain it?

    2. Michael Fiorillo

      “Government schools” is a right wing/Glibertarian trope: is that how you want to be identified here?

      1. Robert Valiant

        Public “education” is a function of the state, and it serves state interests. I think you may be employing an ad hominem here, but I’m a proud, confident, utra-left critic of government schools, as well as a former public school teacher, administrator, and Oregon State education bureaucrat, so I ‘m not personally intimidated by your threat.

        1. pretzelattack

          but now it serves corporate interests, over state interests. is that why you object to it?

          1. Robert Valiant

            Corporate interests and state interests are one. Conceptually, I am a strong believer in public education, but good public education requires a benevolent state. I also acknowledge that there are many educators, mostly teachers, contributing to quality education, despite the malevolence of our system.

            1. pretzelattack

              but that’s a fairly recent development, charter schools, etc. they aren’t necessarily “one”.

              1. Robert Valiant

                Oh, I fully agree: American public education is far from homogeneous (although standardization is a primary goal of education reform, just as it is in any “scientific management” effort). The drive to monetize public education goes back at least to the Reagan Administration’s A Nation at Risk report from 1983.

        2. Michael Fiorillo

          I’m also a public school teacher, and decades-long opponent of school privatization, and the fact remains that, your ultra-left protestations notwithstanding, you are employing right-wing and Glibertarian termninology when you use that phrase.

          And thank you for the Dollar Store analysis of the role of public education.

            1. Michael Fiorillo

              Using the the glib and superficial language/arguments employed by Libertarians.

              Some of which we’re seeing in this discussion

      2. todde

        I am not concerned with how people identify me for the most part.

        I will use whatever words I choose, you can respond to them as you wish.

        Whining about ‘words used’ isn’t really a ‘good look’ either. If you are concerned about what others think.

        1. todde

          is that how you want to be identified here?

          Idk, if I continue to use words like that will it go ‘on my permanent record’?

          Save your classroom behavior management techniques for the classroom.

          I also use ‘democrat party’. Another taboo word I’ve been told.

          1. NotReallyHere

            Good one, dude. I got some weed in my back pocket. Meet ya after class behind the bike shed,

          2. Michael Fiorillo

            Using the term “government schools” isn’t taboo: it’s revealing.

            It’s pretty simple: do you want to reveal/identify yourself as supporting the privatization of the public schools? If so, then feel free to use the term, but be honest about it.

            If not, then you should reconsider using a term employed almost exclusively by the enemies of public education.

            1. Kael

              You made your point, and it’s one that might be helpful, but, I wonder if being a zealous Trope Cop is really constructive or is also revealing in some way?

              1. Michael Fiorillo

                I raised a point, people responded, and I rebutted.

                If you see that as being a Trope Cop, whatever that is, so be it.

  4. shinola

    “…up to $1 billion awarded by the CSP—in more than 1,000 grants—was wasted on charter schools that never opened or opened for only brief periods before being shut down for mismanagement, poor performance, lack of enrollment, and fraud.”

    Where do I go to sign up for this program? I could use some extra cash and I’m already pretty good at mismanagement; I could sharpen up my fraud skills pretty quickly. For a few hundred thou (a bargain) I’m sure I could never open a charter school.

  5. Adam Eran

    The education “reformers'” agenda includes three tactics: 1. Merit pay (because teachers are motivated by money, don’cha know!) 2. (Union-busting) Charter schools and 3. Testing, testing, testing (because MBA’s like numbers, and numbers always reflect “value added”).

    Science validates none of these as effective in improving educational outcomes. Nevertheless, our plutocratic masters funded even a propaganda film (Waiting for Superman) to promote them and “super” teachers as the solution. The film showed Michelle Rhee, superintendent for D.C. schools, firing lots of teachers who didn’t get measurable results in test scores. Of course this meant a wave of cheating on tests ensued….

    Oddly enough, the school system most “super,” at least according to the film, was the Finnish school system, which is very good, indeed. Unfortunately, the film omitted mention that the teachers were unionized, tenured, and well-paid in Finland.

    What does correlate with educational outcomes if the above three strategies don’t? Answer: childhood poverty. In Finland, childhood poverty afflicts 2% of the population. In the U.S. it’s 23%.

    All this fiddle-farting with educational institutions is a distraction from the real issue.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      amen, re: poverty having measurable effects.
      the little isd where my wife works is a “blue ribbon school” several times over. i keep the little hat pins on my bedside lamp shade.
      but they all hate the standardised tests and the institutional edicts and inertia and do their best to teach around them.
      this is also a tiny town in a low population county in the middle of nowhere….everyone knows everybody, and there’s a lot of unit cohesion to be found. this matters a lot.
      given the small sample size, it’s easy to compare grades(and doing well in college or trade school, or even just in general) with what’s going on at home: is there food, security, love?
      obviously correlative, 1=1.
      however, in spite of the looking down the nose of some of our more well off folks, less than ideal home situations are not always(or even the majority) due to “bad parents”—just really really busy ones, often with all manner of minor or major disasters they’re dealing with.
      but it’s a village, almost literally…and people like my mother in law make up an unofficial brigade of “social workers” who come out of the woodwork when they hear sirens, or a kid says something scary, or tells them that another kid didn’t get breakfast for the last week.
      this has all been pretty amazing to watch in action(i didn’t grow up like that, notably)…but I have no idea how to bottle it and give it away.
      I have MIL’s scanner(since I’m around the house/farm all the time(speakers in the trees!)), and members of this brigade often call me to see what the helicopter is there for, or where the sirens are going.
      3am, and they learn that so and so is being flown out in critical, and they have 3 kids at home…and the whirlwind descends and those kids are taken care of.
      i think its important to point out that there’s no formal organisation to this…which is a big part of the difficulty in scaling it.
      they just take it upon themselves to get together and step up.
      none of this means that we’re perfect out here…far from it. meth, poverty, domestic violence, our fair share of racism(lessening noticeably in last 20 years) and interreligious acrimony. i hear of deaths and near deaths of despair far too often on that scanner.
      but here’s this other thing that people do, that mitigates the gloom a little.

  6. tongorad

    The education “reformers’” agenda includes three tactics: 1. Merit pay

    I don’t think this is as much of a thing anymore. The long term goal is to reduce education to a service industry, staffed by low-paid “flexible” labor. This is achieved by standardized, canned curriculum and scripted lessons that can be taught by non-certified teachers. So-called online learning factors into this equation too, of course.

  7. todde

    small neighborhood schools with the public library as a networking node.

    that is my idea of school reform.

    1. skippy

      I would be interested in any educational background you might have to draw conclusions from and BTW whom is this – Man – you speak of.

      1. todde

        you have never heard of the Secret Organization known as ‘the Man’?

        Are you asking for my credentials? I’ve got ’em.

        I will be happy to give them once everyone else who posts on educational matters does.

        I think your safe if you think my ‘library as a networking node” won’t work.

        1. skippy

          Diden’t ask for credentials, asked if you had any background aka experience to draw from, contra some deductive process.

          Never mentioned anything about your suggestion, because it would require a tremendous amount of further unpacking to determine its feasibility. Sorry but it sounds a bit like the whole Khan academy approach and we saw how that panned out e.g. ideology before rigor.

          1. Todde

            Ah, you were serious.

            Forgive me.

            It was a.pitch a made i was hoping to further develop for a workshop on ‘ how our education system has failed our children’ that a friend of mine was chairing.

            it would involve shifting a lot of money from the school system to libraries and these small schools.

            It would involve a serious rethink in how we educate our children.

            I wasnt asked to speak at the seminar, needless to say.

            1. skippy

              I thought the evidence showed the same deleterious effects the Khan experiment experienced.

            2. skippy

              Sorry I should clarify, decentralization is not a panacea all in of itself, the state is not some monolith which one can hang all societies woes on [time and space], many noted yonks ago here at NC the change in Ed to widgets and cogs to supply [tm] the desires of the Market [genuflects], et al ….

              So I would suggest the first and foremost issue is what – is – the purpose of an education, before even considering how it should be delivered.

              1. Todde

                In my specific example the question was ‘how do we prepare high school students for the academic rigors of college.

                My answwr was to go with smaller but more schools and expand local libraries and trach actual classes.from there that involve research and studying from a variety of tezts instead of gerting apoonfwed from books and lesson plans.

              2. skippy

                Again with the currant state of Tertiary education, with a side of social lubricant for post placement, I question the imperative of said education.

              3. skippy

                To substantiate that a bit more I would suggest a more robust educational back drop in humanities, royal science, and sociology – history. After that one can focus more on individual pursuits and how that reflects on their future.

                Hard to expect an ethical or moral society when the tools needed to consider such is excluded from individuals, because the Market prefers a more malleable labour stock e.g. efforts moving to robotics and A.I.

              4. skippy

                Per se going back to state funded universities without the profit – intellectual property motive. 60+ out state vs 40- instate without regard to GPA to make the admin a bonus is not grounded in academic anything IMO.

  8. VietnamVet

    This is mafia government. The wasted billion dollars went to the connected. This was reported in one article in the middle of WP newspaper last week and this post. That’s it. Public safety in America is collapsing. This money would have helped to save lives. Democrats ignore it. They are connected too.

      1. VietnamVet

        Charter schools grew out of the blow back from school busing and the chance to grab public money for private purposes. No surprise that a billion tax dollars were siphoned off. This is corruption. “Mafia” is defined as “an organized group of people who you disapprove of because they use unfair or illegal means in order to get what they want.” This is an apt description the plutocracy that rules America.

        “Godfather 3” Michael Corleone’s confession. The priest’s absolution; “Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer.”

        1. skippy

          Understand the bus issue though I thought Bush Jr made the source of such complaints quite clear – precious bodily fluids thingy – with a side of profit makes it unquestionably virtuous – see salvation army.

          Hope you and yours are well …

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