My children attend an amazing public elementary school in Bloomington, Illinois. The student body is diverse, and the teachers are committed professionals who genuinely care about the wellbeing and education of all their students.
The school building is full of joy. Many of the children could not receive such an education — would not spend their days in a place of joyful learning — if not for this public school. Whenever I spend time there, I always leave feeling optimistic about the future of public education in the United States.
Then I read the news and my optimism turns to dread.
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.
For years, DeVos has used her enormous wealth and power to promote what is euphemistically called “school choice.” Perhaps the most pervasive education reform idea of the last few decades, school choice is sold as a way to give parents more educational options for their children. Under a voucher program, for instance, parents would be able to take public money that normally goes to fund traditional public schools and use it to send their children to private schools. If DeVos has her way, the state would even fund religious schools of the type she attended, which teach deeply conservative curricula that include creationism.
At her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, DeVos told Bernie Sanders: “I have worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost thirty years, to be a voice for parents and a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”
While that’s a dubious spin on an insidious career, it’s undoubtedly true that DeVos has funded and led some of the most influential school choice organizations in the country: All Children Matter, Alliance for School Choice, American Education Reform Council, American Federation of Children, Children First America, Education Freedom Fund, Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Great Lakes Education Project.
As many of her critics have pointed out, DeVos is a case study in the nefarious ways that big money shapes education policy in the United States. But she takes such criticism in stride. In 1997 she wrote: “I have decided . . . to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”
In short, DeVos is arguably the nation’s most powerful proponent of school privatization — and now, even after bumbling her way through her confirmation hearing, she’s set to take the reins of the Department of Education.
American public schools have some very serious problems. Spend time in the crumbling public schools on the south side of Chicago and then venture over to the plush public schools in the leafy Chicago suburbs, and you’ll experience alternative universes. Schools all over the greater Chicagoland are filled with committed and professional teachers, some quite excellent. But the students who attend the city schools arrive at school with stark disadvantages, unlike their better-off suburban peers. Discrepancies in school funding only exacerbate such class deficits.
Most of the problems with the public schools, in other words, are outgrowths of a deeply unequal society. Yet the solution to this problem — the redistribution of wealth — is inimical to the interests of billionaires like DeVos. The fact that she will soon be in charge of the nation’s schools is a sick joke. Make no mistake: DeVos is a serious threat to public education and should be treated accordingly.
Unfortunately, many Democrats have long supported the same so-called education reform measures that DeVos backs. Often wrapping these measures in civil rights language, Democratic education reformers have provided cover for some of the worst types of reforms, including promoting the spread of charter schools — the preferred liberal mechanism for fulfilling the “choice” agenda. (Charter schools operate with public money, but without much public oversight, and are therefore often vehicles for pet pedagogical projects of billionaire educational philanthropists like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.)
DeVos will not have to completely reverse the Department of Education’s course in order to fulfill her agenda. Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy — the brainchild of former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, past CEO of Chicago Public Schools — allocates scarce federal resources to those states most aggressively implementing education reform measures, particularly around charter schools.
Perhaps the most effective advocate of school choice is New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who many Democrats are touting as the party’s savior in the post-Obama era. Liberals swooned when Booker opposed his Senate colleague Jeff Sessions, the right-wing racist Trump tapped to be the next attorney general. But however laudable, Booker’s actions didn’t take much in the way of courage.
Booker’s funders — hedge-fund managers and pharmaceutical barons — don’t care about such theatrics. They’re more concerned that he vote Big Pharma’s way and keep up his role as a leading member of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-privatization group. They want to make sure he continues attacking teachers’ unions, the strongest bulwark against privatization.
Their aim is to undercut public schools and foster union-free charter schools, freeing the rich from having to pay teachers as unionized public servants with pensions.
So in the fight against Trump and DeVos, we can’t give Booker and his anti-union ilk a pass. As enablers of DeVos’s privatization agenda, they too must be delegitimized.
Public education depends on it. The beautiful school where I send my children depends on it.