Game. Set. Match.
The news that Donald Trump has named Betsy DeVos as his choice for Secretary of Education is just another brick in the wall for Mr. Trump’s plan to turn the US into a giant flea market, selling off the bits and pieces of a once great nation for parts to the highest bidders.
I had to laugh in recent weeks as folks set off alarms at the rumors of Michelle Rhee or Eva Moskowitz being appointed to this position. The truth is Rhee and Moskowitz are mere amateurs at this school privatization scheme. For Pete’s sake, Ms. Moskowitz still spends her days actually stepping foot in to schools in NYC, terrorizing students and teachers. And Rhee, a former Teach for America recruit, whose “go to” classroom management technique was taping the mouths of her reluctant “scholars”, has been in hiding after a disastrous run as Superintendent of DC’s schools, an experiment that ended in failure for all concerned, and threatened to dim the rising star of the corporate reform movement–until recently, when she and her icky hubby reemerged for a photo op at Trump Tower.
Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, is a pro at this game. And unlike Rhee and Moskowitz, who depend on the kindness–and financial backing–of others, Betsy has the financial wherewithall to bankroll her own plans. Like her new boss, Ms. DeVos–allegedly–won’t be beholden to any “special interests” in her efforts to turn our public education system into a Sotheby’s auction.
Rest assured, also, that unlike Ms. Moskowitz, Betsy DeVos hasn’t been spending any of her valuable time in…”schools” lately, and certainly hasn’t been close enough to a real, live student to tape them up–even though I’m sure she approves of Ms. Rhee’s approach to building a safe and welcoming classroom learning environment. No, Ms. DeVos has been busy dreaming up new ways to capitalize on the billions of taxpayer dollars currently being wasted on children, teachers, and schools, and helping her puppet in the Michigan governor’s residence with his plan to destroy the state’s schools.
Remember, Michigan is the state where the Governor poisoned the water in one of its largest cities, and more than 400 days later has still refused to replace a single water pipe. And the state whose lawyers recently claimed–and I swear I’m not making this up–that the state’s children had no “fundamental right to literacy.”
This is Betsy DeVos’ and Rick Snyder’s dream for how a state should govern–that a state and its elected officials have no responsibility to provide clean drinking water or a quality education for its children. It’s a dystopian vision of the future that absolves a state’s leaders and institutions from providing, maintaining, repairing, and supporting its schools, roads, water systems, and infrastructure, or protecting its most vulnerable citizens from the permanent damage caused by a poisoned water supply.
So, if you want to know what our new federal education policy is going to look like under Secretary DeVos, what has happened in Michigan under Gov. Snyder–and bankrolled and supported by the DeVos family–provides perhaps the best example of what to expect…
Snyder’s “skunk works” plan was a furtive, secretive, and unconstitutional effort to turn Michigan’s schools into a virtual bonanza for profiteers. As originally reported by Chad Livengood, here’s what Snyder–and DeVos–were doing:
The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a “skunk works” project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a “value school” that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to meeting minutes and reports obtained by The Detroit News.…Records show the group has strived to remain secretive, even adopting the “skunk works” alias, which dates to defense contractor Lockheed Martin’s secret development of fighter planes during World War II….In January, participants were instructed in a memo to use “alternative” email accounts.
The idea behind the “skunk works” plan was to radically increase the use of technology (i.e., virtual charters, online classes) to dramatically reduce the number of teachers needed, and to decouple tax dollars from schools by providing every student in the state with an “education debit card” that could be used for a wide range of educational experiences (i.e., music lessons, art classes, sports teams).
The ultimate goal here was to create a new “value school” model in the state, delivering schooling at a per-student cost of roughly $5000, over $2000 less than the average reimbursement provided by the state for each child enrolled in a district’s schools–with “edupreneurs” pocketing the balance. For Snyder and DeVos, the purpose of education is not to help develop a more informed and educated citizenry, or to help children to become more fully human by providing a comprehensive, high quality curriculum, including music, art, and physical education in addition to the rest of the disciplines. The purpose of education under Snyder and DeVos is to turn the state’s once excellent system of public schools into an educational WalMart, boasting “low, low prices” in place of quality instruction.
The former President of the Michigan State Board of Education, John Austin, was never invited to participate in these discussions, and expressed his concern with this plan:
The initiative is “very unnerving” given the history of Lansing lawyer Richard McLellan, a work group member, in pursuing vouchers, said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, who was unaware of the “skunk works” project. A voucher system lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools — something prohibited by the state Constitution.
“This is disturbing to hear of secret group meetings,” Austin said. “That reflects the ideology and political agenda of the creation of a for-profit and parallel enterprise market for schools. Part of its goal is to take down the education establishment: superintendents, school boards and teachers unions.”
Aside from being a radical redistribution of public resources to private bank accounts, this plan represents a stunningly blatant unconstitutional approach to funding public education. As Livengood points out, vouchers “let parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools—something prohibited by the state Constitution.”
In this way, Ms. DeVos is the perfect ideological mate for Mr. Trump: neither seems concerned with allowing petty little things like rules, regulations, or ethics get in the way of them pursuing their agendas. The Constitution only applies to the “little people,” not the billionaire “deciders” who will make the rules in the Trump administration.
Betsy DeVos was the absolute worst possible choice for Secretary of Education, so it’s no surprise that Trump chose her for this cabinet post. Her appointment is much closer to Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist than it is to his choice of Reince Preibus as Chief of Staff. One is a party insider who will make the “trains run on time”: the other is an arsonist who would happily burn the train station to the ground.
Betsy DeVos’ mission is no less than the total destruction of public education. Her apparent support for charters is merely a head fake to the right to distract us from for her ultimate goal of “decoupling” state and federal dollars from supporting schools of any type.
Under Secretary of Education DeVos we will see the emergence of a two-tiered educational system:
One, a system of elite private and religious schools for well-to-do, mostly White parents with the means to afford expensive tuition payments, staffed by qualified, certified teachers, with a rich curriculum based on face-to-face instruction in clean, safe, well-maintained schools…
The other, a parallel system of “fly by night” virtual and online “schools” that open and close seemingly at random, and for-profit charters operated by scam artists like Northern Michigan’s Dr. Steve Ingersoll, with little to no state or federal regulation or oversight, and a bare bones, “back to the basics” curriculum delivered by unqualified and uncertified “teachers”.
I’m guessing that the leadership at Teach for America is practically salivating today.
For the rest of us, welcome to the Hunger Games of public education.
So, what can we do? Stand up. Speak out. Run for your local school board. Demand adequate funding from your community and state. Vote for your local school budget. Support teachers. Volunteer to help at your kid’s school. Attend school board meetings. Go to school concerts and plays. Tell the astro-turf reform groups in your area (I’m looking at you, Great Lakes Education Project and Mackinac Center for Public Policy) that you don’t buy their regressive, populist vision of public education, and that even if you live in a place where you’re lucky to have excellent schools, you believe that ALL kids deserve a great education–and that you are willing, and happy, to pay a bit more in taxes to help make that happen.
Betsy DeVos needs to hear, loudly and clearly, that her cynical, selfish, profit-focused vision of public education isn’t constitutional; it’s predatory.
Her approach is not that of an educational leader; it’s that of a vandal.
Tell her that these are OUR public schools, and we value them and need them. And that we won’t let her, and her new Boss, destroy them.
[CC image credit: Keith A. Almli | Wikimedia Commons]