VIDEO: Betsy DeVos “Conversation” at Harvard by Mercedes Schneider 

By Mercedes Schneider | Originally published on Mercedes Schneider’s EduBlog | 2017 | Follow Mercedes Schneider @deutsch29blog | Photo U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Gage Skidmore CC 2.0 | Syndication made possible through Patreon.

By Mercedes Schneider

On September 28, 2017, US ed sec Betsy DeVos spoke at Harvard’s Kennedy School at what appeared to be a welcoming venture for a woman who actively campaigns against traditional public education in favor of a business-model vending of educational-styled options: a two-day conference entitled, “The Future of School Choice: Helping Students Succeed.”

DeVos delivered a keynote address— as part of a session entitled, “A Conversation About School Choice.” Below is the entire one-hour event featuring DeVos as posted on the Harvard Kennedy School website. (Note that the silent protesters in the audience and their protest during DeVos’ 25-minute speech were not captured in this video.)

Interestingly, the moderator, Harvard Kennedy School Dean Archon Fung, calls for a “conversation” and for those with opposing views on school choice “to listen and understand one another instead of circling the wagons into our own echo chamber.”

Fung says this as he introduces Betsy DeVos, who is a school choice echo chamber. She is firm on her position: traditional public education can and must yield in favor of “options” in which all will be well because parents will choose and all will just fall into place.

Following her speech, DeVos is joined by school choice proponent, Harvard professor and Hoover Institute senior fellow, Paul Peterson. His questions were gentle, with no solid rebuttal.

A number of his questions focused on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

In the Peterson-DeVos exchange, there was no intense moment in over critical issues, such as supposedly empowered parents and students being left without their chosen school option when the admin of the school choose to fraudulently spend or otherwise mismanage taxpayer funds, and the school goes under.

In short, this exchange was not so much conversation as it was an infomercial favoring DeVos’ pro-choice position and a bland commentary on ESSA– a safe and sheltered exchange for DeVos.

If indeed the goal were to have a conversation about school choice, then Fung and Peterson could have invited those who support traditional public education to engage DeVos and other choice advocates in a debate. Such an arrangement did not occur. Nevertheless, Fung did ensure that audience members would be allowed to ask questions once DeVos finished her speech. He said that such a practice was in keeping with Harvard’s procedures for all speakers.

Fung then warned the audience that the Harvard University police would “escort… from the forum anyone who insists upon preventing others from speaking or hearing by disrupting this event.”

Fung followed with an ironic statement given that Betsy DeVos has insulated herself from any habitual, meaningful discussion about her position on school choice and her palpable disdain for traditional public education:

When you prevent others from speaking or hearing disagreeable views, or when you yourself refuse to be challenged by those that disagree, it means that you are so sure that you’re right and so sure that they’re wrong that you have nothing to learn from them. But on an issue like school choice, how can anyone be so sure of themselves?

Not sure if either DeVos or Fung caught the irony. Fung was quick to pitch about the possibility for school choice to save students from failing schools. He even mentioned Detroit by name.

He also noted, “We might come to see school choice as a way to fleece the public.”

Had this been a debate, the point of school choice as fleecing the public could have easily been discussed in past and present tense, not some future possibility not yet touching places like Detroit.

Fung’s introduction of DeVos alluded to criticism of her confirmation as US secretary of education, and those audience questions would come.

Surely Betsy DeVos knew that she could be asked some difficult questions by members of this Harvard audience. Audience questions begin at minute 44 in the one-hour video included above. The first individual asked what DeVos will do to ensure quality schools, whether public, charter, or private. She says a lot without addressing the “wild, wild West” issue of under-regulated school quality.

The second question also involved the federal role in school accountability. As she did in response to the first question, DeVos responded to the second question by saying parents make better choices when given information about the schools and that ESSA requires schools to offer certain information to parents. In other words, if schools are transparent and honest about the information they offer to parents, then good schools will prosper because parents will choose those schools, and bad ones will close because parents will choose to go elsewhere. It will all just work out.

Choice offers no means of ensuring quality education for all students, and DeVos argues for options, not quality, and not ensuring quality education for all.

The third individual asked about student safety and DeVos’ decisions to repeal Title IX guidance on sexual assault. In her response to this student, DeVos sounded the most like she was trying to address the question.

As DeVos spoke, audience members constantly protested silently. From the outset, Fung acknowledged that 1,900 individuals protested the Harvard event on Facebook.

The protest is quite powerful to witness, which one can easily do in this three-minute video excerpt in which the camera focuses on the audience, not the stage:

The video ends with a student asking DeVos the following:

Hi, my name is Jeff Versam (?). I’m a masters in public administration student here at the Kennedy School. So, you’re a billionaire with lots and lots of investments, and the so-called school choice movement is a way to open the floodgates for corporate interests to make money off of the backs of students. How much do you expect your net worth to increase as a result of your policy choices, and what are your friends on Wall Street and in the business world, like the Koch brothers, saying about the potential to get rich off of the backs of students?

Fung responded, “You could choose not to answer that, Secretary.” DeVos did respond as follows, as captured on the one-hour video:

Let me just say I’ve been involved with education choice for thirty years. I have written lots of checks to support giving parents and kids options to choose a school of their choice. The balance on my income has gone very much the other way [points down] and will continue to do so. I’m committed to assuring that every child, every child, has the opportunity to getting an equal opportunity to get an education. That means every child, not rich kids, not kids whose parents are politicians and can get them into the right school under the right circumstances. Every, every kid.

Jeff V. then asked, “Are you suggesting…” and was cut off by Fung.

This moment was one of real conversation. However, Fung jumped in, “I’m sorry. One per customer.”

Fifteen minutes for questions; four audience questions. Then, Fung announced, a “lightening round” of three more questions, 30 seconds each, with DeVos able to decide not to answer.

The audience protested. They wanted a conversation with DeVos. Fung apologized that the event was scheduled to end at 7 p.m.

This event was not a conversation, but for a moment, it almost became one.

The final three questions were rushed. One was from a former math teacher in New Orleans and concerned how DeVos would ensure that students who choose traditional public schools would continue to receive sufficient support if $1 billion in Title I money were devoted to private school choice. Another was from a Grand Rapids native and concerned DeVos’ role in ushering in for-profit schools lacking accountability in Michigan:

Given the fact that in Michigan, students have a lot of choice but not good choices, and corporations are profiting from that, why do you think that choice is appropriate for the nation?

Below is DeVos’ response:

First of all, of the students that are still left in the city of Detroit, 49 percent of them [murmurs] excuse me, everybody who has had means and wants to move elsewhere has moved outside of the city of Detroit. And, the students that are there, 49 percent of them have chosen to go to charter schools. Nobody’s forcing them to go to charter schools. Of the traditional public schools in Detroit, not one of them has ever been closed down because of performance. Not one. Yet there have been over 20 charter schools closed. I just cite those statistics and ask you to think about that. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. But the reality is that of kids going to charter schools in Michigan and in the city of Detroit, they are gaining three or four months more per year over their public school counterparts. So, there is a difference.

Let me just punctuate DeVos’ response with Detroit’s ever-rotating city manager fiasco and the problem of siphoning funding from Detroit’s public school system in the name of choice.

Moreover, I consider the funding-siphoning issue to be a deal-breaker for the can’t-we-all-just-get-along sentiment behind the Harvard-sponsored school choice conversation that really wasn’t.

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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