By now, most Americans are familiar with the damage a tweet can do.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos lobbed one out Friday morning that should deal a major, albeit unintentional, blow to West Virginia Republicans hoping to overhaul education in the Mountain State toward charter schools and possible privatization.
“West Virginia has an opportunity to improve education for all & put the needs of students first. Looking forward to seeing bold moves to offer robust options like charter schools & ESAs and support great teachers. Let’s get it done @WVGovernor, @SenCarmichaelWV & @SpeakerHanshaw!”
What DeVos, a billionaire with little experience concerning public schools, did was essentially confirm something at least two of those she name-checked in that tweet have been trying to downplay: This brand of education overhaul is an out-of-state effort driven by money, not better options for West Virginia kids.
Charter schools are funded by public money but don’t have to adhere to state standards when it comes to teacher certification and other regulations. The ESAs DeVos mentioned take public funds and divert them to private schools or homeschooling. The charter school business, as DeVos can attest, can be very lucrative at the expense of public education.
It’s been extensively reported this legislation has been shaped by models prepared by the pro-charter American Legislative Exchange Council. But West Virginia Republicans could at least argue that’s what ALEC is there for, to provide a basis for conservative legislation. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, or Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, could still make the case that, even though the inspiration came from elsewhere, the benefits are applicable to West Virginia.
DeVos lending her endorsement, however, completely destroys that line of reasoning. And it’s a typical Trump administration move, although one usually reserved for Trump himself: Maintain blissful unawareness of a tense and delicate situation while tossing a hand grenade on it in the form of about 240 characters, then walk away.
For DeVos, this faux pas has little consequence. For the state Legislature, well, you’d better believe the public school teachers and the unions that represent them are going to take this and run. And they should.
Way back in the regular legislative session, when this entire effort was known as Senate Bill 451, Carmichael used shady tactics to try and get it passed, even though Republicans controlled the Senate, House of Delegates and the Governor’s Office. When it failed, he vowed a special session. There’s been some consensus-building and re-branding (it’s now the “Student Success Act”) since then, including with Gov. Jim Justice, who was no fan of the original bill.
There’s still a lot of questions as the new legislation goes even further than the original bill by not capping the number of charter schools allowed. And the Senate is at least going to try to pass this and other bills (the ESA bill among them) in one day.
All of this reveals that even the backers of such legislation think they’re trying to get away with something. DeVos adding her support only makes it that much clearer.