As Donald Trump begins his presidency, a danger is that those of us who care about public education will give up and neglect to stand up for this institution that has defined our society. Maybe—when the Affordable Care Act and stability in the Middle East and civil rights protections and the minimum wage and nuclear nonproliferation and programs to curtail climate change are all being threatened—we’ll just capitulate. Maybe we’ll just hope dysfunction in Washington will thwart Betsy DeVos’s radical quest to steal essential funds from Title I and the already paltry federal budget line for schools to serve children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and use the money to expand vouchers and charter schools nationwide. Because we’ve taken our public school system for granted for so long, we may simply forget to defend public education.
Our democracy is complex enough, however, to entertain debate and develop policy simultaneously on a multitude of issues, and no one program or issue is more important than any other. Those of us who care about the public schools must speak up at this juncture when the schools that serve over 90 percent of our society’s children and adolescents are at risk from the policies of this new administration. We cannot permit the protest against Betsy DeVos and her policies to be characterized merely as a battle between the teachers unions and the Trump administration. We all need to speak up.
Here are some examples of important ways people are speaking up to defend public education and opposing the nomination and likely policies of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.
In a wonderful column over the holidays for the NY Times, Timothy Egan profiles the governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, who made sure to mention the public schools in his interview with Egan: “Every morning my wife and I drop our kids off at the same public schools that we went to.” Egan comments: “Public, that’s key. As in public land—the great shared turf of the American West. Public health, which the governor expanded in this poor state. Simple stuff, grounded in the nontoxic populism of the past. So when the Trump administration starts taking away people’s health care, trashing public schools with a church-lady billionaire as education secretary, or colluding with a Congress that wants to offload public land, Montana can offer a resistance playbook.”
Or one can focus on Betsy DeVos herself—her record and her words. In late December, Valerie Strauss posted a summary of and a commentary on a speech delivered just last year by Betsy DeVos, a speech to a conference filled with school privatizers. DeVos characterized our public schools as “antiquated… and frankly embarrassing” and she declared: “Government really sucks. And it doesn’t matter which party is in power.” Betsy DeVos has literally no experience in government and no experience as a public school student or a public school parent or a public school teacher. Her only connection to public education has been as a philanthropist—contributing solely to organizations and politicians who support expanding vouchers and deregulating charter schools. Peter Greene, a public school teacher in Pennsylvania and a blogger, calls DeVos on her attack on government: “You know, I’m going to give her a point for pithy phraseology. And as she notes, parties and politics are one thing that she does actually know. And she reminds me of a question I’ve always had—if your main experience of government is using money to bend politicians to your will, just how far does that lower your opinion of and respect for politicians? … But she ignores the part where government has a role to stand between citizens and People with Power who want to do harm. She also ignores, as do all free market acolytes, the Great Failing of the Free Market—it will not serve all customers, and public education MUST serve all customers.”
The Rev. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor and president of the North Carolina NAACP, lifts the moral voice. Barber always names the right for all to quality public schools as he frames his call for a third Reconstruction; Barber explains that the first Reconstruction followed the Civil War and the second was the Civil Rights Movement. Barber calls for a fusion coalition to confront the politics of backlash, and warns that we can see where a Trump administration will take us if we examine has been happening in North Carolina since 2008 when the governor and both houses of the legislature became dominated by conservative reactionaries: “Give tax breaks to corporations and to the wealthy, attack public education, deny people access to health care, attack immigrants, attack the LGBTQ community in the name of ‘religious liberty,’ strip environmental protections, and, finally, make it easier to get a gun than it is to vote.” Barber responds from his point of view in the church: “(W)e have to challenge the moral hypocrisy of the so-called Religious Right, which we should not even say because they are so wrong. They are engaging in a form of theological heresy. The greatest sin in the Bible is the sin of idolatry. The second greatest sin… whenever people worshiped themselves, was injustice toward other people. There are more than 2,000 scriptures in the Bible that deal with the issue of injustice toward women, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the unacceptable. You might have three about homosexuality, and not one of them trumps this scripture: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Barber calls for a new Reconstruction through fusion politics, and he reminds us that the right to public education was central to the first Reconstruction: “These fusion coalitions 150 years ago built the first public schools and in state constitutions gave all persons a constitutional right to public education—something that to this day has not been done in the federal constitution.”
The activist and University of Illinois at Chicago education professor Bill Ayers reminds us about the essential bond between public education and democracy that has been the foundation of a progressive philosophy of education as framed by John Dewey a hundred years ago. As we think about responding to Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as our next Secretary of Education, Ayers would suggest we pose this question to ourselves: “Is education a product to be sold in the market or is it human right?” Here is Ayers’ own answer to that question: “Education for free people is powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal. Every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a work in progress and a force in motion, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force, each of us born equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience and agency, each deserving a dedicated place in the community of solidarity as well as a vital sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. Embracing that basic ethic and spirit, people recognize that the fullest development of each individual—given the tremendous range of ability and the delicious stew of race, ethnicity, points of origin, and background—is the necessary condition for the full development of the entire community, and, conversely, that the fullest development of all is essential for the full development of each. This has obvious implications for education policy.” (Demand the Impossible, p. 161)