People for the American Way has released a well-documented statement about the danger that Betsy DeVos and the Trump agenda poses to American public education. Her nomination, says PFAW, is “a new high-water mark in Right-Wing’s Long War on Public Education.” The one positive consequence of DeVos’s nomination is that it has awakened the nation’s leading civil rights and civil liberties organizations to the war on public schools that has been waged quietly since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, and some might say since Ronald Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” in 1983.

 

The PFAW document is an excellent analysis of the attack on the nation’s public schools. It is a must-read!

 

The right wing’s long-term campaign to undermine public education is a battle being waged on multiple fronts. Public education’s enemies include religious conservatives who want public tax dollars to support schools that teach religious dogma, ideological opponents of government and public sector unions, and sectors of corporate America who see profits to be skimmed or scammed from the flow of tax dollars devoted to education. Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. Secretary of Education, has been actively engaged on all these fronts. DeVos, who like Trump celebrates being “politically incorrect,” has harsh words for the education establishment, declaring in a 2015 speech at an education conference, “Government really sucks.”

 

DeVos has been, in the words of Mother Jones’s Kristina Rizga, “trying to gut public schools for years.” Indeed, as the New York Times noted, it is “hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools.” In addition to these ideological concerns, DeVos is simply unqualified for the job: she has never been a teacher, school administrator, or even state-level education policy bureaucrat. She did not attend public schools and neither did her children.

 

With the DeVos nomination, Religious Right activists have drawn a step closer to achieving the anti-public-education dream that the late Jerry Falwell did not live to see fully implemented: “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools,” Falwell wrote in 1979. “The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!”

 

At the same time, if DeVos is confirmed, anti-government and anti-union ideologues will have taken a major step toward the late Milton Friedman’s vision of completely privatizing public education. Friedman, intellectual godfather of the voucher movement, said “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.”

 

There is some ideological overlap between the libertarian and Christianist designs on public education. Many Religious Right leaders have embraced the teaching of Christian Reconstructionists that the Bible does not give the government any role in education; hard-core limited government “constitutional conservatives” believe there is no legitimate federal role in education. Milton Friedman, an intellectual godfather of the privatization movement, told a 2006 meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council that it would be “ideal” to “abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it,” but since that wasn’t politically feasible, money spent on education should be converted into vouchers.

 

The DeVos Family Has Played a Key Role in Building Right-Wing Anti-Public-Education Infrastructure
Betsy DeVos is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Edgar Prince, and married the son of a wealthy businessman, Richard DeVos; the families have been major funders of the Republican Party and right-wing think tanks and advocacy organizations. For example, the Family Research Council’s Washington, D.C. headquarters and distribution center in Michigan were built with millions from the DeVos and Prince clans. DeVos also served for a decade on the board of the Acton Institute, which provides religious rationales for right-wing economic policies. The DeVos family has promoted anti-LGBT policies and its anti-union lobbying helped turn Michigan into a so-called “Right to Work” state.

 

Betsy DeVos and her extraordinarily wealthy family have helped to build the Religious Right’s political and policy infrastructure; lobbied for legislation to expand charter schools programs and protect them from regulation and oversight; promoted vouchers and related tax schemes to steer money away from public schools; and poured money into political attacks on elected officials, including Republicans, who resist their plans for the privatization of education. Putting DeVos in charge of the Department of Education is not just having the fox guard the henhouse, says writer Jay Michaelson, it is giving the job to the slaughterer.

 

An April 2016 report from Media Matters on the “tangled network of advocacy, research, media, and profiteering that’s taking over public education” highlighted some of the many organizations DeVos has been involved in:

 

Betsy DeVos is also the co-founder and current chair of the boards at the anti-teachers-union state advocacy groups Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children (AFC) and a close friend of teachers union opponent Campbell Brown, who also serves on AFC’s board. DeVos also sits on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Through the DeVos Family Foundation, the DeVoses have given millions to anti-teachers union and pro-privatization education groups; recent tax filings show donations to the Alliance for School Choice, the American Enterprise Institute, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Heritage Foundation, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and the Institute for Justice. The foundation is listed as a supporter of Campbell Brown’s The 74 education website. Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children further connects the DeVos family to right-wing corporate reform groups; it is listed as an education partner of the right-wing-fueled National School Choice Week campaign and counts at least 19 additional groups in this guide as national allied organizations, and its affiliated Alliance for School Choice group is an associate member of the State Policy Network of conservative think tanks.

As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has noted, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon mocked “the donor class” during the presidential campaign, but “it would be hard to find a better representative of the ‘donor class’ than DeVos.”

 

School Choice as P.R. Campaign vs. School Choice in Reality
Among the many efforts supported by DeVos and her organizations is a national “School Choice Week” held every year in January. It’s all about putting a shiny happy face on school privatization efforts, complete with bright yellow scarves for kids, an “official” dance to be performed at local events, and national publicity support for what organizers say will be more than 20,000 events this January 22-28 – more than 2,000 of them held by homeschooling groups. The President of National School Choice Week, Andrew Campanella, used to work at the Alliance for School Choice, whose board is chaired by Betsy DeVos.

 

School Choice Week is intentionally designed to blur the very real and significant differences between policies that fall under the broad banner of “school choice.” There’s a huge difference between a school district offering magnet schools and the diversion of funds away from school districts to for-profit cyberschools, but National School Choice Week treats them all the same, with a “collective messaging” approach that hides the anti-public-education agendas of some education “reformers” by wrapping them all together in the language of parental empowerment and student opportunity.

 

The Failures of Market Fundamentalism
Advocates for school choice tend to promote “magic of the marketplace thinking,” believing that deregulation, competition and limited government oversight will automatically produce better results than “government schools.” But while DeVos and her fellow “revolutionaries” posture as champions for children against an indifferent “blob” of self-interested teachers and bureaucrats, the “reformers” don’t have a convincing track record when it comes to improving student accomplishment overall. Indeed, as Tulane University’s Douglas Harris argues, “The DeVos nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.”

 

CHARTER SCHOOLS AND MICHIGAN’S MESS
Advocates for various forms of “school choice” can point to mixed results from programs that they have put in place. Some charter schools, for example, do a good job, but many do not. And the biggest cautionary tale for those who want to expand such programs is, interestingly enough, precisely the place where DeVos has played the biggest role. As The New York Times reported:

 

Michigan is one of the nation’s biggest school choice laboratories, especially with charter schools. The Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts have among the nation’s 10 largest shares of students in charters, and the state sends $1 billion in education funding to charters annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation…

 

But if Michigan is a center of school choice, it is also among the worst places to argue that choice has made schools better. As the state embraced and then expanded charters over the past two decades, its rank has fallen on national reading and math tests. Most charter schools perform below the state average.

 

And a federal review in 2015 found “an unreasonably high” percentage of charter schools on the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The number of charter schools on that list had doubled since 2010, after the passage of a law a group financed by Ms. DeVos pushed to expand the schools. The group blocked a provision in that law that would have prevented failing schools from expanding or replicating.

 

An earlier New York Times story reported, “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos…”

 

While the idea was to foster academic competition, the 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. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.

 

Politico has also turned a skeptical eye toward the DeVos-backed experiment in Michigan:

 

Critics say Michigan’s laissez-faire attitude about charter-school regulation has led to marginal and, in some cases, terrible schools in the state’s poorest communities as part of a system dominated by for-profit operators. Charter-school growth has also weakened the finances and enrollment of traditional public-school districts like Detroit’s, at a time when many communities are still recovering from the economic downturn that hit Michigan’s auto industry particularly hard.

 

The results in Michigan are so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.

 

Education “revolutionaries” like DeVos argue that expanding charter school operations will boost public schools through competition. But a November 2016 report by the Economic Policy Institute on the consequences of charter school expansion in America’s cities found that charter expansions put increased stress on public schools. It also documented problems with conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance among private managers and charter management firms.

 

Corruption in the charter school industry has also been identified as a problem by education historian Diane Ravitch. “There are all kinds of deals,” she says. “And the biggest and sleaziest deal of all is the charter operators, the for-profit operators, in particular, who buy a piece of property and then rent it to themselves at a rental that’s three, four, five, 10 times the market rate, and they make tons of money, not on the school, but on the leasing.” In a 2014 exposé on charter schools’ lack of accountability, the Detroit Free Press reported, among other things, that one charter school had spent $1 million on swampland.

 

The EPI report found another major problem:

 

Expansion of charter schooling is exacerbating inequities across schools and children because children are being increasingly segregated by economic status, race, language, and disabilities and further, because charter schools are raising and spending vastly different amounts, without regard for differences in student needs. Often, the charter schools serving the least needy populations also have the greatest resource advantages.

 

The report’s authors concluded:

 

To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.

 

The American Federation of Teachers’ Randy Weingarten describes DeVos as “a principal cheerleader of the practice of using the exponential growth of unregulated and unaccountable charters to destabilize, defund, decimate and privatize public education.” Adds Weingarten, “These consequences are why the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on charter schools and why the mayor of Detroit worked to establish some commonsense oversight of this sector. They’re also why voters rejected charter expansion initiatives in Georgia and Massachusetts this November.”

 

There is more. DeVos is the “four-star general of the voucher movement.” Vouchers would “gut” public education while providing no benefit to anyone.

 

Ultimately, what is at stake is the future of public education as a core democratic institution that has provided generations of Americans, including immigrants, with the means to become full participants in American society. Several years ago, educator Stan Karp argued that what is ultimately at stake in school reform debates is “whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed — however imperfectly— by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?”