In Penetrating Analysis, Joanne Barkan Predicts Likely Direction of a DeVos Education Department

Joanne Barkan has published another of her remarkably lucid and well-written articles at Dissent, this time a profile of Betsy DeVos.  Barkan explicitly predicts how DeVos, if she is confirmed as Secretary of Education, will set out to accomplish her stated goal of using the power of the U.S. Department of Education to expand education privatization.

Barkan spreads the blame for what has already been greatly expanded privatization far beyond the work of right-wing ideologues: “When did Americans stop talking about public K-12 education as the keystone of a strong democracy, as the incubator for citizenship, shared values, and social cohesion in a diverse nation, as the only educational institution obligated to serve every child who appears on the doorstep?  Conservatives don’t bear sole responsibility for changing the conversation. The Clinton and Obama administrations reduced K-12 education to little more than the required stepping stone to a college degree that leads to successful competition in the global economy. That’s a meager sales pitch, making it all too easy for K-12 schooling to be chopped up into products sold on the market.”

Barkan does distinguish Betsy DeVos, however, from recent administrations, both Democratic and Republican, that have made privatization-lite more palatable through their rhetoric that redefined the schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods as “failing.” All recent administrations have also embraced charter schools as escapes for a few children from so-called ‘failing’ public schools instead of demanding the investments sufficient to make the public system work in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.

Compared to any recent education leader Betsy DeVos is an extremist: “Milton Friedman, patron saint of the free market, died in 2006, but his ideas about public education live on in the thought and deeds of Betsy DeVos, likely the next U.S. Secretary of Education… In 1996, Milton Friedman and his wife Rose (also an economist) launched the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice as ‘the nation’s only organization solely dedicated to promoting their concept of educational choice.’  ‘Choice’ is the ed-reform movement’s euphemism for privatization. All the tools used to create choice—vouchers, charter schools, tax credits for private school tuition, tax credits for individuals and businesses that create private school scholarships, ‘education savings accounts’ (usually government-funded debit cards used for various private-school expenses, not just tuition—siphon tax dollars out of the public school system and into private hands.  DeVos has worked with and donated to the Friedman Foundation, recently renamed EdChoice.”

Barkan lists the pro-privatization think tanks and organizations, in addition to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, supported by Betsy DeVos: “For almost twenty-five years, Betsy DeVos has arguably been the most dogged political operative in the movement to privatize public education. Under the banner of choice, she founded, funded, and/or led a mind-numbing list of organizations: the American Federation for Children, Alliance for School Choice, Foundation for Excellence in Education (Jeb Bush’s operation), All Children Matter, American Education Reform Council, Children First America, Education Freedom Fund, and Great Lakes Education Project.”

Predicting that Betsy Devos will be “indefatigable—and iron-willed,” Barkan suggests that DeVos will, like Arne Duncan before her, use federal grants as incentives to states to adopt particular policies that are set by the Department of Education as conditions to qualify for federal funding. Barkan reminds us that under Arne Duncan and in exchange for federal money, states agreed to rigid “school turnaround” plans that closed and privatized schools, fired teachers and evaluated teachers by students’ test scores. “DeVos has the opportunity to achieve the same kind of breakthrough for vouchers. Many Americans oppose vouchers knowing that they transfer taxpayer money to private and religious schools to the detriment of the public system. But DeVos doesn’t need to convince the public; she needs to convince state legislators and governors. Right now, Republicans control thirty-three governorships and both chambers of the legislatures in thirty-two states. They will be her greatest asset. Moreover, DeVos’s job will be easier today than it would have been six or seven years ago because ed reformers have made headway in substituting the appealing word ‘choice’ for vouchers and privatization.”

Barkan views the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), created by Bill Clinton in 1994, and since then condemned by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General in a series of biennial reports for poor record keeping and lax oversight, as the model DeVos will copy for promoting additional federal privatization efforts: “The CSP makes three-year grants available to states on a competitive basis for the purpose of opening or expanding charter schools according to each state’s existing laws. Thus the program subsidizes charter expansion without micromanaging policy… For strategically thinking privatizers, the beauty of the CSP is that it avoids the curse of federal overreach. Relatively small, out of the national limelight, it has steadily increased the scope of charter schools without producing much of a backlash.”

When Congress passed the December 2015, reauthorization of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Republican majority prohibited some of the federal Department of Education’s power to incentivize states to adopt federal programs, as a protest to what many Republicans perceived as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s overreach. Some of those constraints are likely to be removed, however, by an all-Republican Congress and a President Trump promoting their own priorities. A bigger question is where the money would come from for the federal privatization block grants Trump and DeVos are known to support.  The only two large funding streams through the U.S. Department of Education are for Title I (to support schools serving poor children) and programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Both programs already suffer from long-term under-funding.

Barkan closes her article by challenging American citizens to be active stakeholders in public education: “The only counterweight to ‘choice’ is excellent public schools, and so the only way to save public education (which is largely very good in the United States) is to improve it where it needs improvement. Hundreds of thousands of public school teachers and administrators commit themselves to the task everyday. The job also belongs to everyone who sees the need to rebuild American democracy. In the face of privatization, we are all stakeholders in the public good that is public education.”

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