I've been in a state of denial since November 9 but Trump's appointment of Betsy DeVos yesterday snapped me right out of it. Sure, Trump hired an actual neo-Nazi as virtual co-Chief of Staff. And no matter how many times the clueless shills on Morning Joe try to assure everyone that Trump won't be governing the way he ran his vile campaign and that everything is back to normal and he'll have a fine cabinet, it just ain't so. The only thing I've heard positive about yesterday's announcement about Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary is that her appointment will clarify the battle lines. DeVos is another extremist billionaire whose life's work has been to destroy public education. Originally a huge Common Core advocate, her real goal is always to destroy teachers unions and voucherize and profitize education. (Incidentally, her brother is Erik Prince, founder of the worst of the American-based mercenary firms, Blackwater, privatizing war.) Annette Taddeo, former Democratic Party chair of Miami-Dade County, and currently a candidate for Florida Democratic Party chair now, was dismayed by Trump's appointment yesterday. “In Florida with Governor Scott's massive cuts to public education,” she told us, “I thought we had reached rock bottom, but it seems there is a new bottom with Trumps nomination of DeVos.”
The first person I called was my old friend Bertis Downs, probably best known as REM's manager, but also as a dedicated public school education activist in Georgia and a board member of the Network for Public Education. “So,” he morosely quipped on the phone just after the news broke, “I guess now our American public schools will all be more like AmWay, I mean what could possibly go wrong!?” He sobered up fast:
But seriously, people don’t want the false cures pushed by corporate reformers and they prove that time and again, in statewide votes like the recent ones in Massachusetts, Washington state and Georgia. This is one of the rare issues that crosses party lines: parents and communities, regardless of their politics or parties, support their local schools and want to see them succeed. Republicans who support public schools– and there are lots of them– that is who needs to speak up and out about this appointment. If not, we really could be seeing the abandonment of our nation’s historic commitment to educating everybody– public education as the great equalizer and perpetual engine of opportunity. People are wise enough to know that “choice” doesn’t educate kids– teachers do and parents do– schools do. And to the extent that the federal government has a role, it is to supplement and encourage our public schools, and the equality of opportunity within them– not to destroy them by putting them into the hands of politicians and their cronies.
Bertis asked me to reach out to Carol Burris, head of the Network for Public Education and New York's 2013 New York State High School Principal of the Year. She told me that the DeVos pick makes one thing clear– it shows Trump's commitment to the privatization of public schools as I wrote about here. DeVos wants all children to have vouchers, and she opposes regulations and oversight. Betsy DeVos spent over 1 million dollar to successfully block the effort of the Michigan legislature to clean up the mess of for-profit, unregulated charters in the state. The majority of Americans do not want what DeVos is selling. They do not want the Chilean education system of right wing dictator, Augusto Pinochet. They want community schools where they, not moneymakers, have voice. I have no doubt that the pushback on charters, vouchers and privatization will be enormous. The veil over so-called ed reform is now off.”
“Trump,” she had written for the Washington Post just last Sunday, “had little to say about education during the campaign, but that does not mean that he and those who surround him do not have a plan. There are clear indications that President Obama’s Race to the Top will be replaced with something that could be called 'Race to the Bank,' as the movement to privatize education seems certain to accelerate under an administration run by Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence.” And the first concrete conformation was the appointment of DeVos.
Trump’s disdain for public schools is apparent. The Trump/Pence website uses the adjective “government” instead of “public” when referring to community schools. It claims that school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time.”
Donald Trump Jr. used the convention as an opportunity to denigrate public schools by comparing them to “Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.” Trump Jr.’s rhetoric belongs to a long-standing, right-wing belief that public education is a socialist institution and that schools should be run by the private sector.
Let’s stop for a moment and think about the “government” that runs public schools. It is not, as the slogan implies, a Washington cabal. Except in those cases where mayors have grabbed control, public schools are governed by locally elected school boards. The origin of the school board dates to 1647, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony required every town to establish a public school. Committees of school governance sprang up, becoming autonomous, local governing boards as early as the 1820s.
Nearly all school board members serve without pay. Most are dedicated, locally elected community servants who must abide by strict laws regarding conflict of interest– laws from which many corporate charter boards are exempt. Yet school boards are viewed as an impediment by billionaires, like Reed Hastings of Netflix, who argued that school boards should be replaced with corporate boards through charter expansion.
The elimination of democratically governed schools is the true agenda of those who embrace choice. The talk of “civil rights” is smoke and mirrors to distract.
The plan on the Trump-Pence website promotes redirecting $20 billion in federal funds from local school districts and instead having those dollars follow the child to the school of their choice– private, charter or public. States that have laws promoting vouchers and charters would be “favored” in the distribution of grants. Like Obama’s Race the Top, the competition for federal funds that states could enter by promising to follow Obama-preferred reforms, a Trump plan could use financial incentives to impose a federal vision on states.
The idea is not novel. Market-based reformers have referred to this for years as “Pell Grants for kids,” or portability of funding.
Portability, vouchers and charter schools have been hallmarks of Pence’s education policy as governor of Indiana. Unlike the Trump-Pence website, which frames choice as a “civil rights” initiative, Governor Pence did not limit vouchers to low-income families. He expanded it to middle-income families and removed the cap on the number of students who can apply.
It was promised that vouchers would result in savings, which then would be redistributed to public schools. What resulted, however, was an unfunded mandate. The voucher program produced huge school spending deficits for the state– a $53 million funding hole during the 2015-16 school year alone. That deficit continues to grow.
The “money follows the student” policy has not only hurt Indiana’s public urban schools, it has also devastated community public schools in rural areas– 63 districts in the Small and Rural Schools Association of Indiana have seen funding reduced, resulting in the possible shutdown of some, even after services to kids are cut to the bone.
In contrast, charters have thrived in Indiana with Pence’s initiatives of taxpayer-funded, low-interest loan, and per-pupil funding for nonacademic expenses. For-profit, not-for-profit and virtual schools are allowed. Scams, cheating scandals and political payback have thrived, as well. Former Indiana education commissioner Tony Bennett was forced to resign as the commissioner of Florida after it was discovered that he had manipulated school rating standards to save an Indiana charter school operated by a big Republican donor who gave generously to Bennett’s campaign.
Two nations, Chile and Sweden, fully implemented school choice. Both countries were influenced by the school privatization and choice theory of Milton and Rose Friedman, which is embraced by the incoming administration.
Chile’s choice system, imposed by dictator Augusto Pinochet, created a subsidized private school system in which schools could be run for profit. Chileans choose among elite private schools; public schools; and voucher schools, which are government-subsidized privates; and corporate schools, which are similar to American charters. Nearly all upper- and middle-class children attend private, corporate or voucher schools, leaving only the poor behind in the public schools. By 2011, Chile ranked 64 out of 65 in segregation across social classes in its schools and colleges.
The post-Pinochet government is banning for-profit schools, tuition and test-in criteria to try to fix the deep inequality caused by privatization, but progress is slow. Putting a public school system back together when it has been systematically disassembled is no easy task.
In the late 1990s, Sweden also embarked on a course of privatization as the driver of school reform. By 2011, the country went into “PISA shock” because Sweden was the only OECD nation to see its scores decline every time PISA was given since the international test began in 2000. Sam Abrams’s book Education and the Commercial Mindset describes Swedish scandals and bankruptcies, grade inflation due to school marketing, higher costs, and increased segregation by social class caused by privatization. As in the case of Chile, only the neediest children were left in some of Sweden’s municipal schools.
Both nations show us the outcome of choice. Americans need to consider some tough questions, before embracing its allure.
Do we want our schools to be governed by our neighbors whom we elect to school boards, or do we want our children’s education governed by corporations that have no real accountability to the families they serve?
Do we to want to build our communities, or fracture them, as neighborhood kids get on different buses to attend voucher schools, or are forced to go to charters because their community public school is now the place that only those without options go?
Do we believe in a community of learners in which kids learn from and with others of different backgrounds, or do we want American schools to become further segregated by race, income and religion?
The most shocking instances of charter school scandal and fraud consistently appear in states that have embraced the choice “market” philosophy. Are we willing to watch our tax dollars wasted, as scam artists and profiteers cash in?
When it comes to improving education, we have been engaged in work avoidance for too long. Rather than putting our efforts into creating better, safer and more diverse neighborhoods with excellent schools, we have pretended that the marketplace offers the only solution. We gave up the dream. And the privatizers and billionaires who dismiss democracy as an annoyance cynically jumped in.
True community public schools cannot survive school choice. There are only two paths. Will we choose the path chosen by a Chilean dictator, or will we rebuild and nurture a system with deep roots in American tradition and idealism?
OK, let's boil this down to a short version: redirecting federal funds toward school vouchers and privatization will lead to wealthy investors turning schools into profit centers for themselves, sort of like the catastrophe of private prisons, but a million times more destructive to what's left of America. Overly dramatic? We'll see. As for the DeVos family… it doesn't get any worse than these crackpot religious fanatics.
The DeVos family has thrown millions of dollars behind the causes and politicians they support. That means financing Senate races across the country involving vulnerable Republicans who support their issues; funding crisis pregnancy centers that lie to patients about abortion and other health concerns; fighting against marriage equality; and lining up support for so-called religious liberties measures.
…“Over the course of 2015, no family in conservative politics donated more hard dollars to political campaigns than the DeVoses,” reported Swan and Neidig [of The Hill]. Richard DeVos, the family’s billionaire patriarch, built his fortune as a co-founder of direct-selling franchise Amway; he is also the owner of the NBA’s Orlando Magic team. “An analysis by The Hill shows that members of the DeVos family donated $964,000 in hard dollars to Senate and House campaigns and to Republican Party committees at both the state and national level. This spending easily surpasses the $97,000 in hard dollars from the Koch family and $72,000 from the Coorses– two other major conservative donor families.”
The DeVoses’ commitment to the Republican Party runs deep. Among their numerous political ties, Richard DeVos acted as the finance chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in the 1980s; Betsy DeVos, who is married to Richard’s son Dick DeVos, was the chair of the Michigan Republican Party and finance chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and her husband Dick took on a self-funded failed gubernatorial bid in Michigan in 2006 that cost the family more than $35 million.
…Much of the DeVos family’s donations have gone toward helping to fund the politicians and the conservative organizations behind anti-choice and other conservative measures in their home state of Michigan. “With donations to state legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder, the DeVos family– via the Michigan Family Forum and Michigan Right to Life, which they help to fund– were able to pass Michigan’s ‘rape insurance’ law, requiring women to buy a separate insurance rider for abortion to be covered, even in cases of rape and incest,” explained NARAL Pro-Choice America in a 2015 memo, referring to the 2013 Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act.
Michigan's preeminent progressive blog, ElectaBlog, has plenty of experience covering all things DeVos. Yesterday, right after the announcement, Mitchell Robinsion, an associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University, made it clear that while if “Trump's plan to turn the US into a giant flea market, selling off the bits and pieces of a once great nation for parts to the highest bidders” is going to be successful, he's found in DeVos a real pro in the game. Betsy DeVos was the absolute worst possible choice for Secretary of Education, so it’s no surprise that Trump chose her for this cabinet post… DeVos,” wrote Robinson, “has been busy dreaming up new ways to capitalize on the billions of taxpayer dollars currently being wasted on children, teachers, and schools, and helping her puppet in the Michigan governor’s residence with his plan to destroy the state’s schools.”
Remember, Michigan is the state where the Governor poisoned the water in one of the city’s largest cities, and more than 400 days later has still refused to replace a single water pipe. And the state whose lawyers recently claimed– and I swear I’m not making this up– that the state’s children had no “fundamental right to literacy.”
This is Betsy DeVos’ and Rick Snyder’s dream for how a state should govern– that a state and its elected officials have no responsibility to provide clean drinking water or a quality education for its children. It’s a dystopian vision of the future that absolves a state’s leaders and institutions from providing, maintaining, repairing, and supporting its schools, roads, water systems, and infrastructure, or protecting its most vulnerable citizens from the permanent damage caused by a poisoned water supply.
So, if you want to know what our new federal education policy is going to look like under Secretary DeVos, what has happened in Michigan under Gov. Snyder– and bankrolled and supported by the DeVos family– provides perhaps the best example of what to expect…
Snyder’s “skunk works” plan was a furtive, secretive, and unconstitutional effort to turn Michigan’s schools into a virtual bonanza for profiteers. As originally reported by Chad Livengood, here’s what Snyder–and DeVos–were doing:
The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a “skunk works” project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a “value school” that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to meeting minutes and reports obtained by the Detroit News.…Records show the group has strived to remain secretive, even adopting the “skunk works” alias, which dates to defense contractor Lockheed Martin’s secret development of fighter planes during World War II….In January, participants were instructed in a memo to use “alternative” email accounts.
The idea behind the “skunk works” plan was to radically increase the use of technology (i.e., virtual charters, online classes) to dramatically reduce the number of teachers needed, and to decouple tax dollars from schools by providing every student in the state with an “education debit card” that could be used for a wide range of educational experiences (i.e., music lessons, art classes, sports teams).
The ultimate goal here was to create a new “value school” model in the state, delivering schooling at a per-student cost of roughly $5000, over $2000 less than the average reimbursement provided by the state for each child enrolled in a district’s schools– with “edupreneurs” pocketing the balance. For Snyder and DeVos, the purpose of education is not to help develop a more informed and educated citizenry, or to help children to become more fully human by providing a comprehensive, high quality curriculum, including music, art, and physical education in addition to the rest of the disciplines. The purpose of education under Snyder and DeVos is to turn the state’s once excellent system of public schools into an educational WalMart, boasting “low, low prices” in place of quality instruction.
…Betsy DeVos’ mission is no less than the total destruction of public education. Her apparent support for charters is merely a head fake to the right to distract us from for her ultimate goal of “decoupling” state and federal dollars from supporting schools of any type.
Under Secretary of Education DeVos we will see the emergence of a two-tiered educational system:
One, a system of elite private and religious schools for well-to-do, mostly White parents with the means to afford expensive tuition payments, staffed by qualified, certified teachers, with a rich curriculum based on face-to-face instruction in clean, safe, well-maintained schools…
The other, a parallel system of “fly by night” virtual and online “schools” that open and close seemingly at random, and for-profit charters operated by scam artists like Northern Michigan’s Dr. Steve Ingersoll, with little to no state or federal regulation or oversight, and a bare bones, “back to the basics” curriculum delivered by unqualified and uncertified “teachers.”
I’m guessing that the leadership at Teach for America is practically salivating today.
For the rest of us, welcome to the Hunger Games of public education.
Is there a public response to this kind of catastrophic decision? The Senate will have to confirm or reject the nomination. I'm sure they're trying to work it out among themselves,although Republicans seem quite enthusiastic. We contacted Madison congressman Mark Pocan, a strong advocate for a healthy and vibrant public education system as a means to give children of all backgrounds an opportunity to achieve their potential. He looked at Trump's announcement yesterday with what appeared to me to be a combination of alarm and revision. “Maybe the only thing worse than taking money away from public schools,” he told us, “is being a rich GOP donor who wants to take money away from your public schools. Betsy DeVos has funded efforts across the country and in my state of Wisconsin to elect politicians who will take funds from public schools and give them to private ones. Her record on education is about as wrong as you can get.”
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis