President-elect Donald Trump’s Nov. 23 nomination of billionaire philanthropist and charter school advocate Betsy DeVos to head the federal Education Department was greeted with consternation by champions of traditional public schools, with the head of the nation’s largest teacher’s union warning the administration would “focus on privatizing, defunding, and destroying public education in America.”
Education experts here in Maine expect the most likely change to come from the new administration in Washington, D.C., will be new federal incentives to increase the number of taxpayer-financed, privately operated charter schools in Maine, currently capped at 10.
“There would likely be a lot more discussion about whether there is an interest in expanding the number of charter schools the legislation allows, and I expect that’s something the Legislature will look at if not this session, then soon after,” says Jim Rier, who was Maine education commissioner for most of 2014 and has been appointed to the commission that evaluates and approves new charter schools.
Catherine Fallona, director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, agrees that a new emphasis on charter school expansion will likely be the most noticeable effect of the change in administrations. “The biggest carrot the federal government has is the money it gives to states to help them accomplish their administrative goals, and I would guess the Trump administration will put lots of money behind opening up school choice and creating new charter schools,” she says. “Those carrots are often hard for states to ignore.”
The issue is politically sensitive because charter schools consume taxpayer dollars that would otherwise go to traditional public schools, depriving them of resources. “If we move beyond 10 (charter schools) what that does, it leaves less money for the community-run schools,” says Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the state’s primary teachers union. “I know we have a lot of support from parents and public school advocates to keep public schools strong and not lift the cap.”
But education experts don’t expect the change in power will have a significant effect on other aspects of the state’s education policy environment. Lawmakers have opened up school choice options in Maine over the past six years, but have thus far taken a go-slow approach, to the occasional annoyance of Gov. Paul LePage.
DeVos, the daughter of one of Michigan’s richest men, is married to another, Dick DeVos, a member of the family that created Amway.
Her brother, Erik Prince, was the founder and CEO of Blackwater, the troubled mercenary firm that received billions in U.S. government contracts in Iraq. She and her family’s Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation have donated heavily to anti-LGBTQ efforts and organizations, including several million dollars to Focus on the Family, which promotes conversion therapy for gay people.
She and her husband have been the primary donors behind the creation, expansion and deregulation of charter schools in Michigan, which a Detroit Free Press investigation earlier this year found were riddled with abuses, including a charter school administrator receiving a $520,000 taxpayer-financed severance package and an online charter school spending $263,000 on a Dale Carnegie confidence-building class.
“Michigan’s laws are either nonexistent or so lenient that there are often no consequences for abuses and poor academics,” the Free Press reported. A DeVos-backed group was the primary force behind the defeat of legislation last year that would have identified and closed failing schools.
DeVos chairs the Alliance for School Choice, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes school voucher programs, whereby parents can use taxpayer funds to send their children to parochial and private schools. She also sits on the board of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which a 2012 Maine Sunday Telegram investigation revealed had ghost-written large parts of LePage’s digital charter school policies. She and another Foundation board member co-wrote a May 2013 op-ed in the Sun Journal newspaper praising LePage’s A-F school grading policy.
LIMITED FEDERAL INFLUENCE
While DeVos is a champion of school vouchers and deregulating charter schools, neither is expected to gain traction in Maine during the Trump administration, in part because education is still largely controlled at the state and local level, and conservative reformers are likely to weaken rather than strengthen federal Education Department. “I think they are likely to downsize it, which would give states a lot more flexibility,” says Fallona.
President Obama’s former longtime education secretary, Arne Duncan, has also been supportive of school choice and charter schools, notes Rier, the former education commissioner. “So I don’t know that this change in administration will have a significant effect,” he says. “Maine already has a fair amount of school choice, not that we couldn’t use more of that.”
LePage, who successfully changed Maine laws to make it easier for students to move between school districts and championed the legalization of charter schools in 2011, has tried to further liberalize how taxpayer education funds can be spent.
In 2013, the governor tried to create a school voucher program for low-income students, but the effort failed.
“I don’t think vouchers would have a lot of legs in Maine,” says Fallona. “It’s hard to envision how they would create a structure that would provide incentives for our state to move in the direction of vouchers in terms of the kind of funding the federal government actually provides.”
In 2013, LePage also tried to lift the 10-school cap on charter schools, but his bill did not receive legislative approval. But Rier expects this is one area where federal policy may have an effect.
“I suspect we may see more incentives coming from the feds, but I hope what we do in Maine continues to be driven by opportunities for students and not by money,” he says. “My feeling is that we need to be measured in the way we go forward, so we are sure we are creating successful charter schools and successful opportunities for kids.”
LePage’s office declined to comment for this story. “However, we look forward to learning more from the Trump Administration regarding policy priorities,” the governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said via email.