The Final Assault on Public Education is On in Earnest

by Jim Miller, AFT Guild Political Action VP

Photo by yugenro

During the halcyon days of the Trump transition period, the Education Committee confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos stood out as perhaps the most jarring example of the craven cynicism that defines the new regime.

The headlines said it all, with nearly every major media outlet noting DeVos’s scant qualifications and terrible performance with extreme skepticism. The New York Times expressed “Big Worries About Betsy DeVos” while the New Yorker outlined “Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools.”  Over at the Washington Post, they wrote “Six Astonishing Things Betsy DeVos Said—and Refused to Say—at her Confirmation Hearing” as Esquire opined that “The Betsy DeVos Hearing Was an Insult to Democracy.”  The Los Angeles Times editorial, “Betsy DeVos Embarassed Herself and Should Be Rejected by the Senate” pithily observed that “what disqualifies her is her lack of understanding of existing law and policy, and her inability to address them thoughtfully.”

But, of course, the new leader of the free world was undaunted by all of this as he signed a stack of executive orders, one of which was his formal nomination of DeVos for Secretary of Education, saying simply, “Ah Betsy, Education. Right?”

Of course, Trump’s glib disregard for the terrible public reception that DeVos has received should surprise no one because he didn’t appoint her for her education credentials but rather for her status as a key operative in the world of corporate think tanks and foundations promoting the privatization of everything from the military and national parks to education.

As Andrew Hartman explains in Jacobin:

Donald Trump’s nominee to be the nation’s next secretary of education is Betsy DeVos, a longtime Republican operative from two of the wealthiest and most powerful conservative families in the nation. She is the daughter of Edgar Prince, founder of the Prince Corporation; sister of Erik Prince, founder of the private military contractor formerly known as Blackwater; and daughter-in-law of Richard DeVos, the billionaire who co-founded the Amway Corporation. DeVos, who received her entire education from private Christian schools, also has close ties to the conservative Christian Reformed Church.

In a recent In These Times piece, Diane Ravitch discusses those same connections and outlines how DeVos’s privatization agenda has been a colossal failure in her home state of Michigan:

The DeVoses and their foundations have spent millions nationwide to elect pro-school choice candidates to school boards, state legislatures and Congress. Anyone who wants to understand the failure of the school choice movement should look to Michigan. Charter schools were first authorized in the state in 1993. In 2014, a year-long investigation by the Detroit Free Press concluded that the state was spending $1 billion annually on charters that performed poorly, and were neither accountable nor transparent. Today, 80 percent of the state’s approximately 300 charter schools are operated by for-profit management. Since the onset of school choice, Michigan’s performance on national tests has steadily declined.

Thus, it should be clear that the DeVos nomination has nothing to do with her qualifications or any record of success.  It really doesn’t matter which department she is in as long as she has a firm commitment to transferring public money to private hands.  That, more than anything else, is the guiding star of the Trump administration as every one of his nominations has shown, though none quite as clearly as DeVos, who will likely be confirmed on a party-line vote despite her deep flaws, financial conflicts, and ethical challenges.

Ravitch goes on to make another crucial point in her piece, one that Hartman echoes in his Jacobin article: as bad as DeVos is as a potential Secretary of Education and as terrible as her privatization agenda will be, it is only a step further in a direction that many corporate Democrats have been heading in for years.  Hence, no one should have been shocked to see DeVos introduced by the consummate Democratic sell-out Joe Lieberman, who now serves on the board of DeVos’s organization, the American Federation of Children.  But maybe, Ravitch ponders, this is a kind of silver lining:

If there’s an upside to DeVos’ nomination, it’s that she may force policymakers to admit the U.S. is headed toward privatization of its education system. Previous education secretaries, including Arne Duncan under President Obama and Rod Paige under President George W. Bush, have pushed school choice policies based on free-market ideology. But during the Obama years, the Department of Education vocally supported charter schools while pretending it could draw the line at vouchers. DeVos, to the contrary, makes no bones about her goal of clearing the path for vouchers. Her disastrous legacy in Michigan demonstrates that once policymakers accept school choice as a positive path, there is no philosophical barrier to other kinds of privatization.

Now, with all the window dressing and bogus civil rights rhetoric stripped away from the corporate education reform movement, we can finally have an honest debate about whether America still believes in public education or if we are truly ready to sell off the commons to the highest bidder, consequences be damned.