The U.S. Senate is gearing up for a contentious vote on President Trump’s nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. To most Americans, liberal or conservative, education is an institution of hope and equity. We expect schools to instill hope for a better future in all children.
We see schools as our engines of equal opportunity, the bedrock of a society in which we believe that all children deserve a chance to become as rich as Betsy DeVos, or as powerful as Donald Trump.
This is why advocates for DeVos, rather than focusing on her actual actions related to education, emphasize her commitment to equity.
One commentator even suggested that opposition to DeVos is racist for opposing charter schools that provide opportunities to black and brown kids living in districts with failing schools.
It is important to realize, however, that whenever parents have real choices about where their children will go to school — when wealthier parents make decisions about where to live based on the reputation of the local school districts, when charter schools open in mixed neighborhoods — the result is an increase in school segregation.
Researchers have shown that all else being equal, parents choose schools with more kids who look like their own, increasing school segregation. White adults with children choose neighborhoods in more segregated areas than do white adults with no children, which suggests that white parents are choosing segregated school districts for their children. In Michigan, where DeVos has been most actively involved through pouring millions of dollars into advocating for school choice through charter schools, parents have made choices that increase racial segregation.
We know that school segregation disadvantages African-American youth. This was the basis for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. It happens not because black and white youth are somehow different, but rather because segregation is almost always tied to resources — school funding, cultural knowledge about how to get ahead and networks of adults who know what to do to ensure their children get ahead.
A recent report also shows that charter schools have higher rates of school suspension than public schools, especially for black youth.
Given these outcomes, charter schools need clear oversight to ensure that children are getting a high-quality education: that high standards are being met, that school discipline in them is not racially disparate, that children with disabilities and English Language Learners are being served. This is not unprecedented; in Massachusetts, where I live, an oversight board requires that charter schools are not-for-profit, and closes charter schools that do not educate children well.
Instead, DeVos has poured millions of dollars into campaigns to prevent oversight of charter schools in Michigan.
In the current political climate, Americans disagree vehemently on many issues. But what most agree on is that our country is divided. In mixed company, we rarely share political views, while among like-minded allies we express vitriol for the other side.
School choice as the sole vehicle for promoting equity will instead contribute to racial segregation and further divide us. This is the wrong choice for our nation’s education system. Betsy DeVos promotes a vision for society that outwardly extols the idea of equity but in reality does little to ensure it.
Natasha Kumar Warikoo is an associate professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and author of The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities.