The election of Donald Trump, and his subsequent nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, may turn the tide in favor of private control of public education. The President-elect promised during his campaign that his administration will spend billions on market-based school choice in the first 100 days. If these funds are taken from federal Title I dollars, Trump, during his first year as President, could cripple the public education system as we know it today.
The debate about market-based approaches to education has become more contentious in recent years as their use has accelerated. Over the years political oldheads have told me in private conversations that decades ago charter schools were a compromise in many state legislatures to ward off the neoliberals’ pursuit of vouchers. This grand bargain was apparently made in Florida, California, Texas and many other states. However, charters have not satiated school privatization proponents. A doubling of the number of charters and $3.3 billion in federal dollars spent by the Obama Administration on charters over the past several years hasn’t been enough.
In fact, it has become readily apparent that charter schools were just the beginning, as we move toward private control of public schools and other forms of market-based choice, especially school vouchers. Evidence from the worldwide Global Education Reform Movement suggests neoliberals and religious ideologues will continue to force school choice until churches and corporations get public tax dollars to run schools. Trump's nomination of DeVos is consistent with this ideological pressure for privatization.
Consider the following questions:
1. Is Betsy DeVos qualified for Secretary of Education?
Betsy DeVos is arguably the most unqualified person nominated for Education Secretary in the history of the United States. As someone who has worked in graduate school admissions and has hired professors and staff over the years, I can say with all honesty her resume likely wouldn’t get a second look for a leadership position in a school district or university. She has never been a classroom teacher. She has never attended a public school. Her children have never attended a public school. DeVos has about the same level of qualification for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, or Attorney General. Essentially, she has no qualification other than neoliberal and religious ideology. Charles Pierce summed up Trump’s cabinet appointments on MSNBC recently as: “people who are really inexperienced, billionaires, people with crazy ideas or really inexperienced billionaires with crazy ideas.”
2. What is Betsy DeVos’s ideology?
Betsy DeVos has been affiliated with a variety of neoliberal education “reform” organizations advocating for market-based school choice such as the Alliance for School Choice, Great Lakes Education Project, Foundation for Educational Excellence and the American Federation of Children (AFC). Since 2009, DeVos has led the AFC, which according to them, is the “nation’s leading school choice organization.” She has also served on the AFC’s political action fund which supports school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs (legal money laundering of voucher funds to avoid constitutional requirements on the separation of church and state), charter schools, and virtual charters schools (which have consistently dismal results). AFC’s political arm has also directed tens of thousands of dollars to fund the election campaigns of candidates who support charters and vouchers, and publicly attacks candidates who don’t.
DeVos, married to the heir of the Amway fortune, has also poured personal financial resources into lobbying for vouchers to be used in schools run by churches and corporations. In 2000, she and her husband also tried to change the Michigan Constitution, which states "No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized . . . to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic, pre-elementary, elementary, or secondary school." The DeVos-supported constitutional amendment would have abolished the legal limits on the separation of church and state and allowed direct public funding for vouchers. The amendment failed when 68 percent of Michigan voters rejected the DeVos family voucher scheme.
The DeVos family has also supported the corporate charter school approach in Michigan, where more than 80 percent of charters are for-profit. The failure of the for-profit charter approach is readily apparent in the takeover of Detroit Public Schools. The Detroit News reported that DeVos’s Great Lakes Education Project was instrumental “in getting the Michigan Legislature to abandon a plan to create a citywide commission in Detroit to regulate the opening and closure of charter schools.”
According to a 2016 New York Times report on Detroit,
“Over the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produce a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.”
Detroit’s cap on charter schools was lifted in 2011 and for-profit companies seized on the opportunity. The Times found that the Motor City’s “unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles.” Even research from CREDO, a conservative think tank, showed that Detroit charters have a negative impact on Detroit students, which in the words of The New York Times has meant “lots of choice, with no good choice.”
3. Do Republican and Democrat education “reformers” both support Trump and DeVos?
The election of Trump has emboldened corporate education reformers of both major political parties. At first they said they were Trump “critics,” disillusioned by the racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and ableism in his campaign rhetoric. It has become readily apparent that Trump’s rhetoric serves as a distraction, essentially a sleight of hand to divert the eyes of the public away from Trump’s profit and privatization agenda. Now, suddenly, many Republican and Democratic education “reformers” are thrilled about Trump, DeVos and their market-based school choice education agenda. As Mike Petrelli, an ardent rightwing voice at the Fordham Foundation, recently put it, DeVos and Trump are “serious” about the privatization of our democratically controlled schools.
4. So what should the progressive education agenda be in this new Trump era?
There’s an old political adage, “you can’t fight something with nothing.” As an alternative to profit and privatization in education policy, we as a society should return to the discussion about education as a public good and subject to democratic control. There are a variety of school choice options to do that, including open enrollment magnets, in-district charters, community schools, and other innovative approaches for democratically controlled schools and choice.
For example, at Travis Heights Elementary School in Austin, Texas, the local teachers’ association served as a conduit, bringing teachers and parents together to create an in-district charter school. The Austin community created a democratically designed community-based charter using the expertise of the school's teachers, administration, and community stakeholders. By investing in the community process and building confidence among partners, Education Austin was able to bring an innovative community-based in-district charter school to fruition.
5. Are there any roadblocks for the privatization of public schools?
Not only do Republicans control the presidency, the House, and the Senate, but also thirty-three governorships and both legislative chambers in thirty-two states. So what’s stopping advocates of corporate takeover and public school privatization from making money off the backs of kids and using tax dollars for unconstitutional proselytizing? The answer is us. Civil-rights organizations, including the NAACP and teachers’ associations are supporting community-based, democratically controlled education. The Trump administration, and perhaps even the courts, may make privatization of the public education system their primary educational policy agenda for the United States. During the next four years, we must engage in democratic public discourse to make democracy work for our communities and for future generations. If we don’t, democracy could die in both.