What was at first an apprehension, then a fear, and then an outrage has now become a certainty. Betsy DeVos is the new U.S. Secretary of Education.
With the rise of DeVos, we have a transformed landscape in national education politics. The "Washington Consensus" that public schools are effectively broken and only a market based reform agenda will fix them is now officially over. The populace is awake to the fact that public education faces an existential threat, and that the type of “reform” championed by DeVos has led to crisis and collapse in places like Detroit.
Democrats who have safely colluded with Republicans on an agenda for schools that includes creeping privatization and the abandonment of our country’s comittment to public education, and who have ignored the alarm sounded by of teachers, parents, and students, now face the possibility of being associated with the agenda of destruction and contempt for public schools personified by Betsy DeVos. The hopeful possibility is that the unified opposition to DeVos can get together behind an alternative education policy of progressive change.
What is the activist response to the DeVos appointment on the ground, and what are people thinking in cities, schools, and classrooms across the country?
The Progressive’s editors posed this question to our Education Fellows.
Peter Greene—English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania and Curmudgucation blogger
Some of this is not a surprise. We knew Trump would not choose someone who possessed any educational wisdom, and we knew that the people around him favor many of the same policies that have been hammering away at the heart of education for years and years. But DeVos is surprising in her vast ignorance and her willingness to use brute force.
Still, the work to maintain the promise of public education has always been a marathon, not a sprint, and so many newly aware people are getting on their feet. This is grim, but it is not the death of public education. Not yet.
The real front lines are right where they’ve always been – in the classroom, with the students. Take a breath. Stay alert for the bad and nurture the good. Betsy DeVos doesn’t know anything but money and power, and we are ready for her.
Xian Franzinger Barrett—Award-winning teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and founding member of EduColor
Today, with little notice, I found out that I will have a classroom starting tomorrow on the far South Side of Chicago. I will be attempting to resuscitate the Japanese language program in Roseland that was dismantled last year.
I share this because I want us to remember: this is a long fight. I stand on the shoulders of Chicago parents, students, and community activists who have battled Democratic machine politicians for decades to protect the basic human right of access to education. While some days we will be driven from our classrooms, our schools closed, and youth's futures plundered for profit and a white supremacist agenda, we will organize, we will rise, and most of us will survive to the days where we will win.
While some days, the party of neo-liberalism will put up a weak fight, and an unqualified, unethical candidate who doesn't believe in the humanity of our students will become Secretary of Education, the strength of the gathering grassroots movements will carry us to our next victory.
I'm excited by how many people got deeply involved in this struggle to stop DeVos's nomination. Unlike many of our Democratic legislators who seemed to rise only to defeat DeVos while extolling the virtues of privatization, so many of you spoke beautifully about why education is so important. Now that you are here and can see the bigger battle to protect public education—a battle in which BOTH major parties stand opposed to us—I'm optimistic at what we will build together.
Tomorrow, I will rise at 5:30 am, kiss my four-month-old good day, and teach justice. I cheer you on to do the same in your classroom, grocery store, office, or wherever you organize and teach and learn with others.
Jennifer C. Berkshire—Journalist, blogger and cohost of the podcast 'Have You Heard,' about education in the time of Trump.
In early January, I spent ten days traveling across Michigan, from the education wild west that is Detroit, to DeVos’ political power base in Grand Rapids.
It wasn’t until I visited the headquarters of Amway, the source of the DeVos’ billions, that I felt as though I understood her true nature. Betsy DeVos is a peddler of snake oil, which is why even as she assumes her new office as the top education official in the land, she’s insisting on holding onto her massive stake in Neurocore, a “brain retraining” company whose market is desperate parents. It’s why, when DeVos was cutting and pasting her answers to the questions from Democratic Senators, she lifted her response to a query about virtual schools scams straight from K12 marketing materials, which are themselves a scam.
In the coming days and months we’ll hear endless talk about why it’s necessary to roll back the “innovation-crushing regulations” that are stifling our public schools. But the education marketplace, the regulation-free-zone that DeVos has ushered in in her home state, is a place where vulnerable parents are preyed upon. Since Trump announced that DeVos was to be his pick, I’ve written close to 10,000 words expounding on her awfulness.
But I really needed only two: snake oil.
Sarah Lahm—Minneapolis-based writer, former English instructor, and Bright Light Small City blogger
On February 7, I spent the morning as a guest at a public elementary school in a historically black, underserved corner of my city. I have been visiting the third-grade classrooms at this school all year, as I work on a long-term writing project, so the children there know and trust me.
After the morning roll call and all-school announcement, a small group of girls welcomed me into their circle. Together, we read and took notes as they prepared for the African American Wax Museum they are putting on at the end of February. Often, their study of Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou and Harriet Tubman was derailed by fits of giggles and random side conversations about Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
“I’m mad at Obama for not running for President again,” one girl loudly declared.
“Don’t worry,” another one assured her. “Michelle Obama is going to fire Trump in 2020 and then she’s going to run for President.”
As we worked and talked, I was aware that, simultaneously, in Washington, D.C., Michigan billionaire and Republican political operative Betsy DeVos was in the process of being confirmed as the country’s next Secretary of Education. Her largely purchased Cabinet seat is not surprising, given the long-standing, bipartisan support for many of the policies she so eagerly champions, such as the expansion of charter schools.
DeVos may have bought her post at the federal Department of Education, but, of course, the failure narrative around public schools has been dominant for decades. As a salve against it, and the coarse privatization plans DeVos represents, I plan on continually immersing myself in the public schools in my community—to know who and what it is we talk about when we talk about saving public education.
Jesse Hagopian—History teacher at Garfiled High in Seattle and author of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing
Betsy DeVos, platinum card member of the 1 percent, leading corporate education reformer and proponent of school privatization, was voted in by the Senate as the next U.S. Secretary of Education.
But while DeVos has been confirmed, so too has the resistance.
The "Black Lives Matter At School" uprising that has spread from Seattle, to Philadelphia, to Rochester, N.Y., is one vital component of this movement. The opt-out movement against high-stakes testing is another. Those in the struggle against charter schools, for ethnic and gender studies curriculum, for restorative justice programs, and in other grassroots progressive movements are also examples of the growing resistance.
When the parents, students, educators, and their unions come together in common cause, they have the power to defend and transform public education.
Jose Luis Vilson—Math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist in New York City
Our already fragile social safety net took another hit with the confirmation of Betsy DeVos. Even if she achieves a tenth of what she envisions, she'll continue the steady march towards the privatization of schools from pre-K through colleges and universities. If we are truly to win, we must advocate for a framework for public education that ensures that everyone has equitable opportunity to the vast and bountiful knowledges that will create a better world across the globe. The political and social will to create such a system took more steps backwards with this nomination and this administration. May we all join the fight forward.
Ashana Bigard—Social justice organizer and advocate for children and families in Louisiana
Beware of the successful experiment coming to a city near you.
No one in New Orleans was shocked by the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education.
We also will not be shocked when she comes to New Orleans and talks about all the wonderful successes here, or urges on our school board’s and new superintendent’s race to make our city 100 percent charter, or spreads lies through the rest of the country about how great the New Orleans “reform” is.
I'm sure our voices will be tuned out once again, and DeVos and her entourage will find five or six parents who truly don't understand the landscape and five or six students to talk about what a wonderful education they had. And they will continue to ignore the 26,000 young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four who are not in school and not working, the 52 percent unemployment rate for for black men in our city, the 39 percent child poverty rate, and the growing epidemics of ADHD and juvenile diabetes which are connected to reform policies that eliminated recess, physical education, and naptime for pre-K and kindergarten, despite research showing these activities are what young children need for healthy brain development.
(If what’s been happening in New Orleans is an experiment in how to destroy children's social emotional growth, ignore their trauma and give them antisocial behavior—which is also linked to criminal behavior—then the experiment is working!)
You won’t hear about any of this from Betsy DeVos.
And of the many charter school supporters who yesterday pretended to not be supportive of DeVos, how many will be praising her name in less than two months? We have to call out these Democrats for education reform. We have to put a line in the sand and ask them which side are they going to stand on.
If we have any hope of saving public education, early childhood brain development, and best practices, what is required now from all of us is bravery.
Sabrina Joy Stevens—Mother, writer, education advocate, and former teacher based in Washington, DC
It's undoubtedly disappointing, if not surprising, that the GOP would pave the way for a billionaire ideologue to oversee a department they've long wanted to eliminate entirely.
Indeed, the very same day that DeVos was confirmed by most Senate Republicans and Vice President Pence, House Republicans introduced a bill to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education (USED).
But I remain convinced that education advocates should be incredibly proud of all the work we've done to turn an inevitable confirmation into a historically contested one. The fact that this was the very first time a Vice President had to come in and break a tie on a Cabinet appointment, while Democrats are the minority party in the Senate, is a really big deal. The significance of that shouldn't be lost on us as a movement. We have power, and we can, should, and must continue to use it every time DeVos and the rest of the Trump Administration put our kids and schools and danger.
While some might be tempted to eat popcorn and let Congress have its way with the Department of Education, we can't let folks who are new to this fight forget why the department exists: to protect society's most vulnerable students by being a check on the power of local school districts, which did (and continue to) discriminate against students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners, girls, and LGBT youth. We need to be ready to raise hell every time they attack these students.
We also need to redouble our efforts at the local level, which matters now more than ever. We need to grow our army of advocates who will not only teach, organize, vote and/or run for school boards and other local and state officials, but who are prepared to sit in, walk out, strike, and anything else that is needed to ensure our kids and communities get the schools we need and deserve.
Cynthia Liu—Founder of K-12 News Network, watchdog, community organizer in Los Angeles
The nation's public education system received a double whammy on Tuesday: Betsy DeVos, Trump’s widely reviled choice to lead the Department of Education received the Senate’s stamp of approval, and a bill filed by a fringe Republican Congressman later that afternoon proposed to eliminate the Department of Education.
My crystal ball is cloudy, but one thing is undeniable: states should understand the full extent of the Trump administration's hostility toward each state's mandate to educate the nation's children. DeVos promotes slow starvation from within the education system. She continues the previous several administrations' disastrous promotion of privatization schemes like charters and vouchers, but with the added insult of disregard for the civil rights of all children and the rights of disabled children in particular.
If Kentucky Representative Thomas Massie's bill becomes law, erasing the Department of Education, it will mean no federal apparatus to ensure equitable education of all students from state to state or district to district, leaving distribution of federal funds up in the air. Vital research and record keeping about the nation's 100,000-plus school districts will likely cease, and it's unclear which federal entity would coordinate the education of Native Alaskans, Hawaiians, and American Indians with whom the federal government has treaties.
The elimination of the U.S. Department of Education would be a fast famine favored by many anti-government electeds (Oh, irony), as opposed to slow starvation through budget cuts and unravelling federal protections. States would likely face a dire situation regardless; the stick of incessant testing (i.e., constant data collection) as a means to extract compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) would be vastly reduced even as the carrot of federal funding shrinks to nothing.
(Studies show most states have not recovered to pre-Great Recession levels, and that includes spending on education from state revenue sources. States still need federal funding.) If there's no U.S. Department of Education, why, then, would anyone comply with ESSA? Or the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)? In the face of a huge fiscal cliff with the mechanism for disbursement of federal Title I education funds unclear, testing would be but a minor concern, but then so, potentially, would be the rights of disabled children to a free appropriate education.
What local education agencies could do given the utter chaos of what Congressman Massie proposes is both mildly encouraging (ignore incessant data collection) and mostly terrifying (ignore IDEA) to contemplate. That we have an anti-intellectual majority in Congress and an administration that devalues education, equity, opportunity, and learnedness is already appallingly clear. No one in the GOP majority is poised to shut down terrible policy ideas or to propose proven, evidence-based policies instead.