Did Betsy DeVos Buy Enough Oklahoma Legislators to Influence School Choice?

If you don’t know the name Betsy DeVos, then maybe you should since she apparently is buying a few Oklahoma Legislators to influence her brand of school reform, even though she is about as much an Oklahoman as I am a Latvian. This article by Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch, which I will publish in its entirety below, will give you an idea of DeVos’s influence in Oklahoma:

Funds Tied to Trump’s Education Pick Targeted ‘Teachers’ Caucus’ Candidates

By Jennifer Palmer, Oklahoma Watch

Betsy DeVos, who is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, has given millions in campaign contributions to politicians across the country.

Some of that fiscal muscle trickled into Oklahoma during the last election cycle through a pro-school-choice “Super PAC” that, notably, opposed so-called “teachers’ caucus” candidates in many instances. (The caucus arose out of many educators’ frustration over what they view as low education funding levels and teacher pay.)

The Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund has received more than $180,000 from its Washington-based parent organization, American Federation for Children, which DeVos chaired.

DeVos has personally given almost $900,000 to the national federation’s related entities since 2012, according to a disclosure submitted to the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in advance of her confirmation hearing, scheduled for Jan. 17.

The Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund has reported spending more than $190,000 in local races since Jan. 1. DeVos’ nomination has sparked controversy because of her long-time support of school-choice policies, with teachers unions and others warning she will push for changes that privatize public education and undermine public schools.

Among the Oklahoma federation’s expenditures in the 2016 elections:

  • $11,509 to oppose Lloyd Snow, a former Sand Springs superintendent who lost a bid for a seat in the state Senate in District 37.
  • $3,177 opposing Don Wentroth Jr., a retired teacher who ran for House District 100 in Oklahoma City and lost to incumbent Elise Hall.
  • $22,788 to oppose Lisa Kramer, a Bixby school board member and CPA whose platform included elevating the value of and promoting the profession of teaching to solve the teacher shortage. Kramer, a Republican, lost to businessman Joe Newhouse in Senate District 25.
  • $2,489 to support Sen. Rob Standridge, who won re-election in District 15 over opponent Shawn Sheehan, a Norman educator and 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year.
  • $3,156 to support Sen. Kyle Loveless, who defeated a Mustang high school teacher in the primary, and ran unopposed for re-election in District 45. Loveless is a school choice proponent.
  • $13,611 to support Joe Newhouse, who supports expanding school choice through tax credits. He defeated teacher caucus candidate Robert Founds.
  • $7,165 to support Julie Daniels, a Bartlesville Republican who won a seat in the Senate representing District 29 and supports education savings accounts for all parents. She defeated teachers’ caucus candidate Robert Jobe, a retired teacher.
  • $7,039 to support Tim Downing, a Republican who defeated Blanchard Public Schools Superintendent Jim Beckham in the primary and teachers’ caucus candidate Liz George, an attorney, in the general election.

The PAC’s latest report was filed Nov. 7. Quarterly reports covering Oct. 1 through Dec. 31 are due on Jan. 31.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not really hopeful for the Oklahoma Legislature somehow finding money to support public schools. We’re too much in the hole in every way right now. That leaves the option of what we have come to know as “school choice.”

Once a legislature has decimated public education by choking off the funding, lawmakers can then implement “school choice.” It sounds great, but what does it mean? Let’s look first at DeVos’s own state of Michigan, where we can best see her education philosophy in action. Here’s an article from the Detroit Free Press.  And here’s an interesting opinion piece about Betsy DeVos.

I’m sure that vouchers and education savings under the guise of “choice” will appear during this Oklahoma legislative session since there isn’t any money to give teachers a raise or to provide funding that will limit class size or support and enhance learning for all children in Oklahoma. Vouchers allow parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools. That might give some students a “choice,” but it will mostly benefit parents who are already sending their kids to private schools. If vouchers are implemented, shouldn’t these private schools, mostly religious, which are taking public money, be held to the same transparency and government standards as public schools?

After all, public schools have elected school boards. Any citizen can go to a school board meeting. Finances are public. Public schools are accountable to the public. Do private schools want to take on the same accountability and transparency? Do private schools want to accept every kid, regardless of cognitive ability, handicaps or emotional problems? Will they provide buses to pick up kids from every segment of the city? Will they feed hungry kids free breakfast and lunch? Will vouchers help children in rural areas?

Will private schools take all children and keep them just like public schools? If not, then it isn’t true choice for every family. I have no problem with private schools. I think they’re a terrific option, but a private school loses its autonomy, selectivity and identity once it starts taking public money.

Education Savings Accounts are a little looser than vouchers. Your kid gets a pile of money to use at a private school, or for other stuff (not clearly defined).

Here’s an article about a challenge to Nevada’s ESAs, which allows parents to get about $5,000 annually to pay for private school or “other education services.”

Education blogger Peter Greene has a good (and entertaining) description of ESAs here.

We should be careful what we wish for. “Choice” sounds great, but “choice” doesn’t exist in public education if every family, every child, is not able to act on that choice.

Why not provide the funding for public education so that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential? I wish I could be hopeful, but with someone like Betsy DeVos, who has no experience with public education, yet has the money (and soon the power through being Trump’s Secretary of Education) to influence education policy in every state, I just don’t hold out much hope for public schools.

Update: Read this article.

Categories: Editor’s Blog