Who are the ‘forgotten students’ Betsy DeVos claims she wants to help?




A recent op-ed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had me questioning whether or not I was reading an article meant for the satirical news site The Onion.

DeVos was touting her plan to help America’s forgotten students, who she described as “those without the freedom the wealthy, powerful, and well-connected have always enjoyed.” In other words, those students with limited resources who generally end up in schools with lower graduation rates, fewer advanced courses, and dilapidated buildings.

I’m 100% on board with the notion that our country should focus its attention and resources on our so-called “forgotten students.” But DeVos’ ill-informed views that Arizona is somehow a model for doing just that is as laughable as it is frightening.

DeVos wants to duplicate what’s happening in Arizona across the country, which would be devastating for those 49 other states who generally rank better in areas such as teacher pay and retention, class size, and achievement gaps.

The belief that Arizona is a template for successfully reaching underserved students has me questioning which students DeVos and her supporters believe are “forgotten.”

Surely she isn’t referring to the majority of Arizona’s low-income or minority students. As a group, these students fall well behind the national average in reading and math.

No, I think DeVos is using her “forgotten” euphemism to appeal to a different group of folks, those who believe white kids suffer when additional resources – monetary or otherwise – are provided to nonwhites in an effort to close the achievement gap.

A little-known and rarely touted fact about education in the Grand Canyon state is that some of our students are doing spectacularly well. As noted by the education nonprofit, Expect More Arizona, our white students outperform the national average in reading and math and best their nonwhite peers by more than 30 points, while the gap between higher and lower-income students stands at more than 20 points.

It’s great to be white and wealthy in Arizona. Not so great for the rest of our students. 

How did this happen? 

It certainly wasn’t by accident.

For more than 20 years, Arizona has been the proving ground for education policies that further the advantages of the privileged at the expense of the majority.

Though our state Constitution demands a “general and uniform public-school system,” our GOP-dominated legislature has done a hell of job creating the exact opposite. Despite previous court rulings, Republican lawmakers and governors have refused to properly fund public school building maintenance and repairs, or “soft capital” expenses such as textbooks and computers. As a result, local districts are forced to ask local taxpayers to pay more to fill those gaps.

Additional funding for students in wealthier (and generally whiter) neighborhoods means one subset of students has access to updated technologies and safer facilities, while those in poorer zip codes are left behind.

Arizona is also an outlier in that our lawmakers refuse to acknowledge the correlation between poverty and educational outcomes, and unlike the vast majority of the country, does not allocate additional state funding to high-poverty schools or students.

Worse yet, Gov. Doug Ducey created a program a few years ago to give additional money to schools with high test scores. The biggest winners in this program? Wealthier schools and kids. 

But the most glaring example we have of a policy that further exacerbates the achievement gap is the one DeVos wishes to nationalize: tax credits for private and religious schools.

DeVos and Ducey, who spoke together on a panel earlier this month when ALEC was in town, have long dismissed the idea that disadvantaged students would benefit from targeted funding that increases instructional time or reduces class sizes, among other things.

They remind us that more money isn’t the solution – unless of course, it’s more money for certain students. They are currently promoting a program that gives millions (or in DeVos’ plan, billions) of new money to unaccountable private and religious schools while also giving wealthy individuals and corporations another tax break.

If this was about leveling the playing field, the tax credits would be strictly limited to those below the federal poverty line, and the schools would be required to demonstrate student progress.

But this isn’t about equity. It’s about replicating the education policies that have landed us at the top of the pile in the most shameful of all rankings: the state with the greatest funding discrepancies between schools with predominantly white versus predominantly nonwhite students.

By holding up these policies as a model, DeVos has made it clear which students she really aims to help.

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Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.