Home > Uncategorized > Now That School is Out… What Can Be Done? If Progressive Educators Don’t Seize THIS Chance, Betsy DeVos Will! But Wait… MAYBE Micro-grants Will Open the Door to DeSchooling!

Now That School is Out… What Can Be Done? If Progressive Educators Don’t Seize THIS Chance, Betsy DeVos Will! But Wait… MAYBE Micro-grants Will Open the Door to DeSchooling!

April 3, 2020

For the past several days I’ve posted about some of the positive results of schools closing abruptly and suddenly finding themselves providing instruction on-line. Among the positive consequences are:

  • The suspension of standardized tests
  • The suspension of giving grades and making every course Pass/Fail
  • “Grade levels” being replaced with grade spans
  • An increased awareness of terms like UNschooling and DEschooling
  • A spotlight on net inequality
  • An increased understanding of the social services schools provide
  • An increased awareness of the roles schools play in medical and nutritional wellbeing of students

If there was ever a time to move in the direction of the Networked School as described in the white paper I wrote several years ago, NOW is the time. Unfortunately there is no single group who can move in a different direction away from the traditional lock-step schools that we have now except for one person: Betsy DeVos. And, alas, while progressive educators scramble to find a unifying message that might attract parents, Betsy DeVos, her Department of Education appointees, and the lobbyists on the religious right are busy developing plans for a new kind of schooling post coronavirus.

As NPR’s Anya Kamenetz reports in her analysis of what will happen once schools open, Ms. DeVos and the GOP are viewing this as a national version of Hurricane Katrina. But instead of using this national catastrophe as an opportunity to open charter schools, she is seeing it as an option to provide parents, even homeschooling parents, with vouchers:

In the United States, education secretary Betsy DeVos has long been a champion of alternatives to public schools, including homeschooling, vouchers and charter schools. In the wake of coronavirus-related school closures, she’s proposed “microgrants” that would go directly to families to supplement children’s education. If enacted, this would essentially constitute a federal homeschool voucher program, a big change in federal policy.

These “micro grants” are virtually identical to the “micro vouchers” proposed in the 1992 book Schools Out by Lewis Perelman. In that book, Perelman envisioned a day when schooling as we know it today would be replaced with on line learning opportunities that students could access for a fee. After demonstrating mastery on some concepts those students would be awarded a “merit badge” that would enable them to progress to a higher level course or fulfill some kind of credit.

I have deep ambivalence about the direction Betsy DeVos is headed. Clearly, providing these “micro grants” would accelerate the demise of the traditional brick and mortar school with students grouped by age cohorts with multi-aged “family” groupings. It would replace the lockstep curricula with one determined by the student’s interest. And most crucially, it would measure student’s learning using criterion referenced performance tests, like the ones used to attain a drivers license or the Advanced Placement tests, instead of norm referenced standardized tests like those used to “measure” school performance in virtually every state in the country. From my perspective these are all potentially positive outcomes.

But it is clear to me that if the federal government offered “micro vouchers” to parents, it will lead to more disparity in educational opportunity, break down the wall between church and state, and destroy the unifying role public education is ideally suited to play.

The issuance of micro vouchers will be the greatest benefit to those highly engaged parents. As we know from research over the past several decades, students who parents who are highly motivated to see their children succeed in school do far better in school than disengaged parents. And we also know that few parents choose to be disengaged. Rather, many parents lack the time needed to support their children. Parents who work multiple jobs, who are raising children on their own, who are homeless or challenged to feed their children, or who struggle with diseases like addition would like to be more engaged with their children but find themselves incapable because of time constraints. Highly engaged parents, particularly those with the time needed, could commit the time needed to explore microgrants and benefit greatly from the opportunity. Parents lacking the time and resources will not benefit. The socio-economic divide between these children will only expand if micro-grants become a reality.

As one who has fought legislation that proposes funneling public funds to sectarian schools, I am concerned that the issuance of micro-grants will open the door for parents to enroll in religiously affiliated schools. Given Ms. DeVos longstanding advocacy for the expansion of Education Savings Accounts designed to provide parents with tax relief for non-public school tuition, it is hard to believe that this proposal is intended to improve or strengthen public school.

What concerns me most, though, is that in giving parents a “choice” there will be more homogeneity in schools and we will move further away from the ideal of a common school where all children of all races, creeds, and socio-economic backgrounds attend school together. I believe in the idea that public schools should mirror the ideals of our country as I understood them as a child. We were a melting pot of nationalities and our schools were designed to provide a means for every child of every background to improve themselves, develop tolerance for each other, and help each other out. Micro-grants are designed to separate children into smaller slices, like FaceBook does. In our Covid 19 lifeboats, I hope we are learning that we need unity.

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