What Betsy DeVos’ confirmation means for innovation in education


Following Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as the next Secretary of Education, the American education system could drastically pivot in unexpected ways. It’s difficult to know exactly what those changes will look like, given DeVos’ vague answers throughout her hearing. What we do know is that the declining state of education, and historical opposition DeVos has already faced for her views on its privatization, will lead to the development of new technological advancements from our top innovators over the next four years.

Even prior to her nomination, higher education has become less accessible each year, and the ballooning costs won’t turn around under DeVos. The average in-state tuition for a four-year public university averages more than $9,000/year, with tuition and fees rising about 7-8 percent annually — twice the rate of average inflation.

The White House hosted a gathering — fortuitously, the week after the election — of the most innovative leaders and organizations in education to discuss solutions to skyrocketing costs in the American education system. Each attendee from the Education Summit was hand-picked by Obama’s top higher education advisors and the Department of Education.

Many of our discussions focused on creating more pathways for non-traditional students, such as veterans and those from low-income families, to enter higher education. These new pathways require us to address the growing disparity between the offerings of academia and the demands of the working world.

It’s increasingly clear that our system depends on education technology (edtech) companies and nonprofits to continue to step up and create scalable solutions toward those ends. Some of DeVos’ philosophies surprisingly align — she’s suggested opening up the education industry to entrepreneurs to innovate technological breakthroughs. Despite her supportive claims of edtech, her ideas about the privatization of education are concerning. Guaranteed accessible education for all is contingent on a balance between edtech and a stable public education system.

There’s substantial evidence that private schooling does not improve children’s ability to succeed within academia.

Although she has not been clear regarding her vision for higher ed, DeVos has been a vocal proponent of school choice and vouchers: two government-related initiatives that offer parents financial assistance for attending private or charter schools rather than publicly provided ones. DeVos committed to both throughout the confirmation process, which was met with scrutiny by the Senate. There’s substantial evidence that private schooling does not improve children’s ability to succeed within academia — and that it actually has the potential to divert desperately needed funding away from public schools, closing many of their doors.

According to The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) in 2013, which compared academic results between charter and traditional public schools across 26 states, only 29 percent of charters studied performed stronger than traditional school counterparts in math, whereas 31 percent performed weaker and 40 percent showed no notable difference. In its 2015 study on the state of Texas, which is notorious for having poor-performing charter schools, students lost 14 days of learning in reading and 29 days of learning in math (based on a 180-day school year), as compared to peers attending traditional public schools.

Studies on school voucher systems provide similarly concerning results. In a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper published in 2015, researchers found that Louisiana’s Scholarship Program (LSP) substantially reduced academic achievement, even though it was intended to provide vouchers specifically for disadvantaged students. Students who attended an LSP-eligible private school were 50 percent more likely to obtain a failing math score.

While President Trump’s goals for education policy are not as apparent as his stark views on immigration, international trade or energy policy, DeVos herself has made it clear that public education is likely to receive less federal support. But some of the extreme public opposition toward Trump foreshadows what’s to come for education. As a direct result of Trump’s aggressive executive orders, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have received more support from first-time donors than ever before. We can expect to see some of the same public action as a result of DeVos’ privatization efforts.

The message coming from Obama’s White House Education Summit was that private startups had done the most to change education for the better in recent years. In combination with threatened federal support, the onus is more than ever on edtech startups and nonprofits to defend and improve the state of education. It looks as if our best innovators have a busy four years ahead.

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