Defeating the DeVos Agenda

Progressives everywhere are in agreement that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is no friend of public education. Her agenda is straightforward: 1) educational vouchers that can be ‘cashed in’ at any school, including religious ones; 2) for-profit charter schools, including on-line ones; and 3) minimal oversight by government.  She is pushing this agenda despite overwhelming evidence that vouchers have failed, that the public does not want vouchers, and that the for-profit education world is full of crooks and charlatans.

However, it’s not enough for progressives to simply be against DeVos’s radical agenda. They must stand strongly and clearly FOR an agenda that makes sense…and not just to parents but also–most importantly–to the general public.

Because, while most parents, year after year, give their children’s schools a grade of either A or B, according to the Phi Delta Kappan poll, parents are a small fraction of the voting population.   Progressives need to connect positively with those without a direct connection to public education, the group I call ‘the outsiders.’

You see, the problem with the truism “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. Only about 25 percent of homes have school age children, and in some communities that number drops into the teens. Even if you include households with grandparents, the percentage probably won’t reach 40.

And it is the people in those households with no strong connection to public education who hold the future of public schools in their hands.  They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers and students matter.  Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than young voters, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18-to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008.  The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”

For these reasons, educators and those connected to schools must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools.  It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; ‘the outsiders’ need to be supportive, and the best way to make that happen is to get them involved in the good things that are happening.

I am afraid that many educators will have trouble taking this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Leave the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.”  That approach won’t work any more, if it ever did.  The ‘outside world,’ meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may also have trouble adjusting, because they’ve grown accustomed to being kept at arm’s length. 

But that’s what has to change…and determined educators can do this by meeting ‘the outsiders’ where they are and involving them in the ‘curriculum’ of a modern world. Here are a few ways, taken from my forthcoming book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.

*Students can create a photo gallery of the residents of their apartment building or their street and then post portraits on the web for all to see and talk about.

*Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, or workers and bosses, also to be posted on the web.

*The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers with the jazz trio from another school in a neighboring county — simultaneously on Skype — which is no problem as long as the schools are within 750 or so miles of each other, roughly the speed of sound (any farther can create a sound lag).

*A video team can interview adults in a senior citizen center or an apartment building around a chosen theme (best job, favorite trip, et cetera), to be edited into a short video for the web. Producing short biographies of ordinary citizens will teach all sorts of valuable skills like clear writing, teamwork and meeting deadlines.  

*Music and drama students can rehearse and then present their productions at retirement homes and senior centers — but with a twist: involve some of the adults in the process (a small part in the play, a role in selecting the music, and so on).

Here’s a real world example from Milpitas, California, courtesy of the San Jose Mercury News:

“Students at John Sinnott Elementary School have been putting what they’ve learned in the classroom to good use over the last few months as they worked to design and build a tiny home on campus with the help of parents and local businesses.

Wearing hard hats and with staple guns in hand, Sinnott students were joined by parents, teachers and San Jose-based Blach Construction’s contractors, carpenters and engineers during a barn raising on April 1.

The tiny home, a 200-square-foot residence located at 2025 Yellowstone Ave., is deemed to be Project Based Learning, or PBL, in action, in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a question, problem or challenge.”

Let’s hope that once the kids have finished installing the solar panels and other finishing touches, they invite lots of ‘outsiders’ to the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 19th!

Careful readers will have noticed some commonalities among these activities:  Many are (so-called) extra-curricular, and all of them are group projects.   All of them involve work outside the school building and direct connections to the group I have called ‘the outsiders.’

After all, the best messengers for strong public education are students engaged in the productive activity of project-based learning.   ‘Outsiders’ will be drawn into the tent and will, over time, become supporters of public education.

However, if public school boards and administrators stick with the ‘test and punish’ agenda of the Bush and Obama administrations, then public education doesn’t stand much of a chance, and Secretary DeVos’s radical agenda is likely to prevail.

Sticking with the status quo plays into DeVos’s hands, and protest marches, editorials, walkouts and other forms of ‘cursing the darkness’ will not slow her down.

Put it this way: Only when ‘outsiders’ become convinced that what’s happening in our public schools is not just test-prep and rote learning pushed on sullen teenagers by demoralized instructors, only then will Betsy DeVos and her militant Christian army of ideologues and profiteers lose this war.


(PS: My book will be published by The New Press in August. Please consider asking your independent book seller to order copies.  The electronic version, which includes videos from my 41-year career, will be available on Amazon.)

13 thoughts on “Defeating the DeVos Agenda

  1. As an older “outsider” leading a movement to address sex discrimination and sexual harassment/assault K-12, I find it ironic–but not surprising–that outsiders can be the most passionate about the issues you raise. Many have the time and insight to become advocates. But we lack numbers, as you write. Does it help to emphasize the impact on the community, for example when students drop out (estimated at $755,000 per student)? In addition to retirees, could college student activists be strong allies? How critical is it to rescue schools from their own climate–where sexual harassment/assault has become normalized? Perhaps we’ll see more collaboration among various “outsiders” as one way to make progress in these disturbing times. In the K-12 Title IX area, engaging the community is also key. Looking forward to reading more on your action plan. (Ours at


  2. John, the St Paul Open School, a k-12 district option founded the the St Paul Public Schools in 1971 in response to a big community effort, has survthe philosoived mostly for more for more than 45 years. Among the reasons I think it has survived (although now as a grades 6-12 option) is that it has done many of the things you suggest. Project based learning and community outreach have been among the central features of the school for more than 45 years.
    The school has generated and enjoyed broad community support. That has made it impossible to close.
    However in the last 6 – 8 years, the school has had a principal who supported its principles. And outreach such as you suggested has been very valuable.


  3. “Only when ‘outsiders’ become convinced that what’s happening in our public schools is not just test-prep and rote learning pushed on sullen teenagers by demoralized instructors…” Sadly, what is going on in public schools is not simply test-prep and rote learning, it is much worse. As long as students continue to be held captive by being forced to go to school where their opinions don’t matter (as noted in your piece where you cite the Phi Delta Kappan poll which surveys parents – NOT students), schools will always be factories of misery that do great harm. Studies show compulsory school significantly contributes to depression, anxiety, and learned helplessness, and also that schools diminish empathy and creativity. Look at the disturbingly high rate of suicide and attempted suicide for high school students. If you support public schooling, you have blood on your hands. True progressives support programs that will take down compulsory schooling. If it takes an ignoramus with a religious agenda to do the job that an intelligent and thoughtful person should have done, but lacked the courage and political will to do the right thing, so be it.


    • While schools stand, the school climate should be corrected– even more difficult under DeVos. In a national survey, 80% of students grade 8-11 report sexual harassment at school and 87% of those students reported negative effects. LGBTQ risks are much higher.Title IX leaders are meeting shortly to discuss strategies in the Trump era.


      • Thank you for providing those additional pieces of research that support my argument. The problem is that the climate cannot be corrected. This is why reform has never worked. You cannot “correct” the environment of a prison. You can make the prison nicer, but at the end of the day it will still be – and will always be – a prison. The same holds true for compulsory schools. As long as a population is forced to be there under threat of law, it will always be a destructive environment.


  4. John:
    I agree with most of what you write about, but I¹m puzzled about this
    column. You seem to think we have great public schools when the data is
    pretty clear: we have over 1 million drop out per year and of those who
    graduate, 65% are not prepared for post secondary education or a career.
    So after 13 years of schooling, about 70% of our children are not properly
    educated. In other words, our public education system is doing a good job of educating 30% of our children. That does not strike me as a system that is working very well. A thirty percent success rate in any other system would be considered an unmitigated failure.
    I do agree that we need public schools, but we also need to educate our
    kids. If a private school meets a child¹s needs better, then lets
    support that decision. Parents deserve the right to decide where their
    child is to be educated. When public schools are comparable or better,
    parents will choose them. That’s what happens now for the 30%.

    Donald P. Nielsen
    Senior Fellow
    Author: “Every School”


    • Don
      I am not naive about the consequences of our sorting system or the past 16 years of “test and punish,” but I know from experience that we have lots of schools and classrooms that embrace project based learning. Those stories need to be told, if only to give courage and cover for educators who know what they should be doing but aren’t.


    • Of that 30% that come away from schooling as literate, you cannot honestly claim that schools were responsible for 100% of that learning, so the “success rate” for schools is much lower than 30% and even that does not take into account the ancillary harm that schools perpetrate. If 16% of the school population is suicidal (as per studies by the CDC) as a result of schooling, it would be wrong to consider that a success. I would agree if you wrote that we need publicly funded support for education, but you wrote that we need public schools. I don’t think that is a defensible position.


  5. 6 years ago, on my website, I said if public schools do not change, they will perish. That’s exactlywhat’s happenning. Everyone should listen to the words of John because we can no longer sit still, march and chant and expect citizens to come running to our rescue. Yes we must march and chant to “set the table”. But then we must develop a truly innovative plan of action to take all children on their pathway to success.

    I can’t wait to read your book John. Inspiration is near, action must follow.


  6. Apologies for contacting you this way, but I didn’t see a contact form. I’m the promotions director at the University of Chicago Press, and I’m writing about a book we’re publishing this fall, Daniel Koretz’s The Testing Charade. Dan and I thought the book might interest you–if you’d be up for taking a look, I’d love to send it. I’m at levi AT, if you’re interested.

    Best regards,
    Levi Stahl


  7. Would it be OK if I cross-posted this article to I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. There is no fee, I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our codmmunity and I liked what you wrote. If “OK” please let me know via email.



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