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Support Betsy DeVos, shoot yourself in the foot

Education groups aimed at uplifting black students should not be the black face of her agenda

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

President-elect Donald Trump looks on as Betsy DeVos, his nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks at the DeltaPlex Arena, December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

There are some things that can get you uninvited to a black family reunion — and tap dancing to the news that Betsy DeVos is the next Secretary of Education is one of them.

By the skin of her teeth, DeVos got enough votes to be confirmed last week. Many black educational organizations sent out perfunctory congratulations and obligatory messages of looking forward to working with her. However, some took it too far by actually praising her flawed candidacy. Their excitement for DeVos reminded a friend of two quotes:

“All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.”

– Zora Neale Hurston

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”

– Harriet Tubman (unconfirmed)

Blackness doesn’t dictate a narrow set of views about education, of course. The black tent is big enough to cover a range of approaches to reforming our school systems. But if Hurston were still here, she would certainly cast out those black organizations that are selling bad policy to black families. And last week, 51 Republicans voted in Betsy DeVos, the champion of bad policies.

Chief among her causes is school vouchers, government-funded coupons intended as an escape hatch to release students from failing public schools zoned by residence to attend a better private school of their choice. Proponents advertise vouchers as giving low-income families the same opportunities afforded to rich ones.

Many states have income and performance requirements to make that sales pitch a reality. But we should never assume private means better. Nor should we assume vouchers wouldn’t be expanded to include middle-class families. In Louisiana, students who attended a private- or faith-based school on vouchers — a program DeVos enthusiastically supported — did worse academically, particularly in math.

In Indiana, thanks to DeVos’ funding of advocacy organizations and her financial contributions to political campaigns, then-Gov. Mike Pence was able to expand the state’s voucher program from about 3,900 to approximately 33,000 enrollees, currently the largest in the country. However, five years after the voucher program began, more than half of the participants have never attended a public school, and the number of low-income black participants declined dramatically. This means that taxpayers are footing the bill for parents in private and religious schools. Many of the vouchers are going to middle-class families, not the lower-income ones the program was advertised as supporting.

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Because black children tend to populate urban areas with high concentrations of failing schools and DeVos hasn’t developed her own grassroots organizing skills, the salesmen for these programs are often black-led organizations. As an administrator in a Michigan college in 2012, I witnessed black organizations prey on black families’ desperation for change, and make Detroit students into the poster children for reform.

But after DeVos’ three decades of activism in Michigan around education reform and about a decade of concentrated work in Detroit, her efforts provided no substantive lift to the downward spiral of the Detroit Public School District, which still posts some of the lowest performances in the country.

And if bad policy wasn’t enough, there’s also DeVos’ lack of experience.

When I was a young graduate student, someone once told me that I had to carry the bags of a scholar to become one. By “carrying bags,” he meant that I needed a mentor to learn from and follow.

But carrying the bags of someone who hasn’t put in the work is just being subservient. DeVos is no education scholar. She knows less about our public schools than a public high school student, and her policies are not in the best interest of black children. Consequently, black-led organizations have a responsibility let her carry her own bags for a while.

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Stepping outside of the black tent doesn’t mean you’re more committed to the children; it just makes an organization look like the one black person who’s a little too eager to please. Don’t be that person. Just ask Kanye. Or Steve Harvey.

The nomination of DeVos clearly gave some black organizations new life. I get the politics — it’s time to cash in. But being the black face of a white agenda may fund a single organization, but it doesn’t fuel a movement.

Regardless of the spread of our beliefs, black folk know that states and districts are not designed to serve black communities in the manner they serve white ones. Our commitment to good schools, whether they are public, private or faith-based, cannot be assailed. Turning away from those principles delegitimizes our legacy. As we often say, “Tell the truth, shame the devil.”

So, you black organizations that are too ignorant to comprehend what a DeVos leadership will mean for our kids, or the ones too power-hungry to care, I am looking at you. If you represent a black organization and you don’t acknowledge the negative effects of vouchers and the duplicity by which they’ve been pushed, then you don’t know you are in chains.

Harriet Tubman is shaking her head.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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