DeVos and the limits of the education reform movement

 By Jack Schneider, College of the Holy Cross

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Betsy DeVos, shaking hands at a school choice rally shortly before she became education secretary in 2017. AP Photo/Maria Danilova

Betsy DeVos exposed the education reform movement’s pitfalls in her highest-profile media appearance to date.

President Donald Trump’s education secretary got the job based on her years of advocacy for expanding “school choice,” especially in Michigan, her home state. Yet she stumbled when Lesley Stahl asked her in a widely watched CBS “60 Minutes” interview to assess the track record for those efforts.

“I don’t know. Overall, I – I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better,” DeVos stammered.

It’s not just Michigan or Midwestern conservatives. Policymakers and philanthropists across the ideological spectrum and the nation have teamed up to reform public education for decades, only to find that their bold projects have fallen short. Regardless of the evidence, however, top-down reform remains the standard among politicians and big donors.

As an educational policy scholar, I have identified a few reasons why school reform efforts so persistently get lackluster results, as well as why enthusiasm for reform hasn’t waned. Despite its long-term failure, large-scale education reform maintains consistent bipartisan support and is backed by roughly US$4 billion a year in philanthropic funding derived from some of the nation’s biggest fortunes.






Shiny objectives

DeVos may be a uniquely polarizing figure, but she is hardly the first federal leader to champion school reform.

Ever since 1983, when the Reagan administration published its “A Nation at Risk” report bemoaning the quality of American public education, politicians have rallied public support for plans to overhaul the nation’s education system. Over the past quarter century, leaders from both parties have backed the creation of curricular standards and high-stakes standardized tests. And they have pushed privately operated charter schools as a replacement for traditional public schools, along with vouchers and other subsidies to defray the cost of private school tuition.

All of these large-scale school reform efforts, whether pushed by the federal government or backed by billionaire philanthropists including the families of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, homebuilder and insurance mogul Eli Broad, late Walmart founder Sam Walton and DeVos herself have encountered setbacks.

Still, the larger ethos of reform hasn’t changed. And none of the leaders of this effort, including DeVos, appear to be wavering in their efforts, even when challenged with evidence, as happened during her cringe-inducing “60 Minutes” interview.

Former PBS NewsHour education correspondent John Merrow sums up his book ‘Addicted to Reform,’ which describes the pitfalls of the K-12 reform movement.

A cycle of failure

From George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Barack Obama’s Race to the Top and the Every Student Succeeds Act that was signed into law in 2015, the federal government has taken a highly interventionist approach to education policy.

But it has routinely failed to produce promised results. Today, educators, scholars and policymakers now almost universally regard No Child Left Behind as a washout. And many critiques of Obama-era reform efforts have been equally blistering.

Nevertheless, the core approach to federal education policy has not markedly changed.

The chief reason that all this activity has produced so little change, in my view, is that the movement’s populist politics encourage reformers to make promises beyond what they can reasonably expect to deliver. The result, then, is a cycle of searing critique, sweeping proposal, disappointment and new proposal. The particulars of each recipe may differ, but the overall approach is always the same.

Cookie cutters

Beyond this dysfunctional cycle, the other big reason the school reform movement has consistently come up short has to do with an approach that is both too narrow and too generic.

Ever since 1966, when Johns Hopkins University sociologist James S. Coleman determined in his government-commissioned report that low-income children of color benefit from learning in integrated settings, most education researchers have agreed that economic inequality and social injustice are among the most powerful drivers of educational achievement gaps. What students achieve in a school, in other words, reflects their living conditions outside its walls.

Yet rather than addressing the daunting issues like persistent poverty that shape children’s lives and interfere with their learning, education reformers have largely embraced a management consultant approach. That is, they seek systems-oriented solutions that can be assessed through bottom-line indicators. This has been particularly true in the case of conservatives like DeVos, who even in her stand against the public education “system,” has proposed a new kind of system – school choice – as a solution.

This approach fails to address the core problems shaping student achievement at a time when researchers like Sean Reardon at Stanford University find that income levels are more correlated with academic achievement than ever and the gap between rich students and less affluent kids is growing.

Sean Reardon, a Stanford University professor, discusses the gap between how low-income and rich students perform academically.

At the same time, reformers of all stripes have tried to enact change at the largest possible scale. To work everywhere, however, education reforms must be suitable for all schools, regardless of their particular circumstances.

This cookie-cutter approach ignores educational research. Scholars consistently find that schools don’t work that way. I believe, as others do, that successful schools are thriving ecosystems adapted to local circumstances. One-size-fits-all reform programs simply can’t have a deep impact in all schools and in every community.

Entrepreneurial outsiders

Perhaps this flawed approach to education reform has survived year after year of disappointing results because policy leaders, donors and politicians tend not to challenge each other on the premise that the ideal of school reform requires a sweeping overhaul – even though they may disagree about the best route. DeVos may be criticized for her dogmatic demeanor, but her approach is fairly mainstream in most regards.

Additionally, many leading reformers generally subscribe to the ethos of educational entrepreneurism. They consider visionary leadership as essential, even when leaders have scant relevant professional experience. That was the case with DeVos before she became education secretary. As outsiders operating within a complex system, however, reformers often fail take the messy real-world experiences of U.S. schools into account.

Finally, the reformers see failure as an acceptable part of the entrepreneurial process. Rather than second-guess their approach when their plans come up short, they may just believe that they placed the wrong bet. As a result, the constant blare of pitches and promises continues. And it’s possible that none of them will ever measure up, no matter the evidence.

The ConversationEditor’s note: This article incorporates elements of a story published on March 8, 2018, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a strategic partner of The Conversation US and provides funding for The Conversation internationally.

See our related Educational Oppression page.

Re-published with permission under license from The Conversation.

Jack Schneider, Assistant Professor of Education, College of the Holy Cross

Most panhandling laws are unconstitutional since there’s no freedom from speech

The City of St. Louis has an aggressive panhandling ordinance, 67918, which defines "aggressive panhandling" as approaching a person in a way that would make them feel threatened, persisting in panhandling when given a negative response, or to touch, block, or follow a person when panhandling.

The ordinance makes it llegal to panhandle in the following places:

(1) In any public transportation vehicle;
(2) Within 50 feet of an automatic teller machine or entrance to a bank;
(3) Within 30 feet of a point of entry to or exit from any building open to the public, including commercial establishments;
(4) At any sidewalk café;
(5) Within 50 feet of any public or private school;
(6) At any bus stop, train stop, or cab stand;
(7) Within 20 feet of any crosswalk;
(8) Within any municipal or government owned building, park, golf course, or playground.

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Derek Cote, a homeless man, panhandling in the median strip on a street in Portland, Maine. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

By Joseph W. Mead, Cleveland State University

Thousands of U.S. cities restrict panhandling in some way. These ordinances limit face-to-face soliciting, including interactions that occur on sidewalks and alongside roads, whether they are verbal or involve holding a sign.

According to a growing string of court decisions, however, laws that outlaw panhandling are themselves illegal. In light of rulings that found these restrictions to violate the freedom of speech, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver and dozens of other cities have repealed laws restricting panhandling in public places since 2015.

As a professor of law and urban studies, I study how local ordinances can harm the poor, particularly people experiencing homelessness. I volunteer with the American Civil Liberties Union and other nonprofits to help fight for more equitable local policies. And I have brought together nonprofits and individuals to successfully change unconstitutional anti-panhandling laws across Ohio, my home state.

Charitable solicitations

Over the past 30 years, cities have increasingly adopted laws to reduce or eliminate panhandling. Although a few jurisdictions simply ban panhandling outright, most ban the practice in certain areas, such as parks, near roads or near bus stops. Cities also regulate what they call “aggressive solicitation” – a term defined broadly to include behavior like asking for a donation twice, in pairs, or after sunset – on the basis that it can make passersby feel physically threatened or vulnerable to mugging.

The First Amendment protects everything from distributing pornography to waving hateful signs outside military funerals. So it is should not be surprising that it also protects fundraising pitches of all kinds.

In a trilogy of opinions issued in the 1980s, the Supreme Court struck down several state laws that restricted charitable solicitation, including laws that prohibited requests from nonprofits that, according to regulators, spent too much money on fundraising.

In ruling against charitable solicitation limits, the justices established two important precedents. First, charitable solicitation is constitutionally protected speech.

Second, local and state authorities can’t dictate which causes may or may not solicit donations within their borders. A regulator’s paternalistic belief that a cause is unwise or inefficient is not a valid reason to limit speech seeking support for it. The listeners can make that decision for themselves.

Panhandling is a basic form of charitable solicitation with a long history. Almsgiving dates back to the days of ancient Greece and the Bible.

Instead of asking for help on behalf of an animal shelter, food pantry or any other kind of nonprofit, the panhandlers ask for help satisfying their own personal need. In case after case, the courts have clearly ruled that the Constitution safeguards the right to make personal pitches the same way that it protects the ability of organizations to make their own asks.

‘Beggars at a Doorway,’ a Flemish painting possibly made by Abraham Willemsens in the 1650s. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The public square

The First Amendment guarantees free speech in public spaces like sidewalks, streets and parks. This freedom is extremely broad but is not without limits.

Even constitutionally protected speech can be somewhat regulated in public areas if the government can justify the restriction. Only rarely, however, can the government restrict protected speech in public spaces based on what is being said, as the Supreme Court reminded us in a 2015 ruling on street signs.

Governments primarily try to justify their restrictions on panhandling by saying they benefit most passersby, who consider expressions of poverty and desperation a nuisance, and nearby businesses, which fear losing customers.

But there’s no freedom from speech, as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in McCullen v. Coakley, a 2014 case about the rights of protesters to congregate near abortion clinics. The fact that someone within earshot cannot “turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site” to avoid hearing a message they don’t like is “a virtue, not a vice,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.

A panhandling sign spotted in San Francisco. BrokenSphere, CC BY-SA

Down and out but not silent

No panhandling bans have made it to the Supreme Court. But in recent years, all lower courts ruling on this issue have found that laws imposing restrictions on sidewalk and roadside solicitation are unconstitutional.

While cities have some legitimate public safety concerns, focusing on a category of speech misses the point. It is at once too broad and too narrow, covering innocent behavior that isn’t threatening and missing much behavior that is problematic.

Instead, cities remain free to regulate problematic behaviors directly, such as prosecuting suspected cases of assault and trespassing or making blocking the sidewalk illegal.

Even better, they can try harder to meet the needs of people who are seeking help rather than attempting to silence them. Portland, Maine, for example, is now hiring panhandlers to clean up public spaces after the courts threw out its restrictive ordinance.

Despite the spate of legal precedents, plenty of these laws remain on the books. Advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging anti-panhandling laws in Albuquerque, Houston and other places that still enforce this kind of law.

The ConversationWith these measures on their way out, cities now have a good chance to refocus their energies on helping, rather than arresting, their homeless residents.

Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.