Betsy DeVos is Not My Secretary of Education

DeVos is determined to teach the public just how valuable an equitable education is by rolling it back altogether

Photo Credit: Salon.com

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke to the American Legislative Exchange Council on July 20 about school choice and her vision for dismantling federal support for our public schools. In her speech, DeVos praised the drive to privatize education through charter schools, voucher programs, and tax credit scholarships that cover private-school tuition. She hailed "new waves of legislation" that brought charter schools to Kentucky, education savings accounts to North Carolina for special needs students, and a similar savings-account program in Arizona for every student.

She went after the American Federation of Teachers, for being "defenders of the status quo" who don't have "kids' interests at heart." She called out this tweet from AFT

Then she said, "I couldn't believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.” (She followed up with a tweetstorm of her own).

She likened her role as Secretary of Education to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a historic champion of free market economies and austerity. She also asserted that those who believe in her vision of education are aligned with the country’s founders.

But let's be clear: at the root of DeVos’s approach is the devaluation and eventual abolition of the public sphere, which often goes together with tax cuts for the wealthy.

First, the status quo is not, as DeVos puts it, the people protesting her outside her offices and wherever she appears in public. If anything, policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top moved school privatization directly to the center of education decision-making in this country. The bipartisan effort to disrupt public education created the pathway for Trump’s agenda to shake it up some more. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) set the stage for Trump, inviting school-choice evangelists including Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to meet about education before eventually calling up DeVos.

Second, as the Education Secretary in 1971, Thatcher became known as “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” for abolishing milk programs for children over seven years old. She was also popular for using dog-whistle rhetoric against black and ethnic minorities, claiming that Afro-Caribbeans gave cannabis to babies and different cultures would dilute England’s strong democracy. Given Thatcher’s history with trade unions, DeVos blew her own barely audible whistle to those who oppose teachers unions. This is not an accident.

DeVos’s mythological interpretation of what the founders wanted is worth noting as well. Certainly they had a lot to say about the importance of education and public schools. Thomas Jefferson also asserted that governments shouldn’t be allowed to manage schools. But there’s a difference between working with thirteen states generally struggling to stay afloat and a fifty-state country that’s one of the most powerful in the world. That’s why amendments exist. But DeVos skipped that part of civics. Just as importantly, states' rights as the founders intended it allowed white plantation owners to keep enslaved peoples as property, whether they went to free land or not. How does one support freedom of choice by pointing at policies that literally kept entire peoples in captivity?

Make no mistake: this is no benign blueprint for public schools.

The whole raison d'être for public education is to ensure that all students get an education. As New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones astutely stated in a rebuttal to DeVos, “PUBLIC education is, at its heart, about the common good. Meaning one student's gain should not come at another student's loss.” It’s as if DeVos believes she runs the Department of Individualized / Personalized Opportunities and not the U.S. Department of Education, a department created specifically for “strengthening the federal role in creating equal educational opportunities for all.” Because public schools serve approximately 90 percent of eligible pre-K through twelfth grade students, the U.S. Department of Ed plays a vital role in the direction that our schools take.

For sure, public schools have had deep, institutional problems with inequity and injustice. We must acknowledge the ways our country perpetuates systemic racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia through schools. This country harms so many of our children through curriculum, funding, and unstable bureaucracy that still works as a reflection of our general social stratification. Progressive activists ought to keep in mind the plethora of frustrated parents of color who will intently listen to hedge fund billionaires offering better resourced schools. We do an injustice by not acknowledging that as we work to create better public schools.

None of these points should give someone like DeVos a platform for dismantling one of the strongest pillars of our country’s social safety net.

DeVos also took time to speak directly to teachers after a week of meetings with some of our best and brightest. She used the last part of her speech to express support for teacher autonomy, which sounds good. She is correct that the last ten-plus years of education reform have led to scripted lessons, overemphasis on standardized testing, and the muffling of teacher voices. But DeVos is effectively weakening the chair in which she sits. This includes a Trump executive order giving her office 300 days to look for examples of federal “overreach” in education, which doesn’t do much in the way of actual legislative action, but show the direction this administration would like to go in. DeVos’s appetite for deregulation, defunding, and negligence (masked as incompetence) bodes ill for a department created specifically to help our country right these wrongs.

This, along with any number of absurd news items coming out of the Department of Education these days, give me reason to say DeVos and her boss need to resign effective immediately. She is no one’s secretary of education. She serves the 0.01 percent  of folks who stand to profit from ultra-conservatism.

She already has the lowest approval rating of any Trump appointee, and, like Thatcher, she continues to bring the hammer to our most fragile policy pieces with little care for public accountability. When you’re that wealthy and thatdismissive of the actual job you were hired to do, it starts to look like you were hired to eliminate the department you lead.

Consider the recent controversy around the Office of Civil Rights. DeVos stated openly that this office within her department would become a “neutral” organization. That has resulted in the office’s dismissal of civil rights cases across the country that revolved around charges of discrimination and harassment. Neutrality in cases of civil rights often results in negligence of and discrimination against the LGBTQ community, communities of color, and women. The primary function of the Office of Civil Rights’ is to be proactive. During the Obama administration, many activists felt the office didn’t do enough. DeVos’s policies would effectively dismember the office’s mission.

Then there is DeVos’s promotion of tax cuts for the wealthy under the guise of vouchers. Vouchers are another avenue for school choice. Students take the money allotted to educate them in a public school and move it to a private school in the form of a scholarship. Yet even voucher supporters must reckon with research showing vouchers don’t work. If the most recent studies show that vouchers don’t work, how does that create equity for our students? If equity isn’t the goal, then why the need to pretend we need vouchers for our most marginalized families?

DeVos is determined to teach the public just how valuable an equitable education is by rolling it back altogether.

This post originally appeared on The Progressive as part of the Public School Shakedown project.

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist in New York City. Follow him @thejlv.

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