Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday and sworn in as our new U.S. Secretary of Education. It became clear in the run up to the Senate’s closest-ever vote on a Cabinet secretary that millions of Americans value the idea of a system of universal, publicly funded schools and want to preserve public education despite the threat of privatization. Ms. DeVos’s views are very different.
In an editorial yesterday, the NY Times summarizes DeVos’s experience and her beliefs: “She has never run, taught in, attended or sent a child to an American public school, and her confirmation hearings laid bare her ignorance of education policy and scorn for public education itself. She has donated millions to, and helped direct, groups that want to replace traditional public schools with charter schools and convert taxpayer dollars to vouchers to help parents send children to private and religious schools.”
Some of DeVos’s supporters have castigated her opponents as comfortable apologists for the status quo. Those of us who opposed DeVos will need to prove we neither fit this label nor accept the status quo. As primary civic institutions, public schools reflect the sins as well as the strengths of our society. We’ll need to demand loudly and persistently that our imperfect system be made to realize its potential for better serving the marginalized children who continue to be left behind even as we insist that public schools must do a better job serving all children’s needs and protecting their rights.
Here are just three of the important issues that slipped out of the conversation as we debated Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as education secretary. We will need to be relentless in raising these concerns.
First, we’ve been ignoring poverty. There is a primary flaw in the federal school accountability system that was created by No Child Left Behind back in 2002, and it is still with us in a slightly milder form in the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in December of 2015. We judge our schools these days by the huge data sets generated by annual standardized testing of all children, and we are set on punishing the schools and the school teachers in places where test scores don’t quickly rise. Yet, years’ of research show conclusively that aggregate test scores reflect the economic circumstances of families and neighborhoods far more then they reflect the quality of schools and teachers. Concentrated family poverty in a nation that is increasingly unequal and residentially segregated by income has been shown in every way to be the problem. Poverty. Rising inequality. Rigidifying income segregation of families overlaid on racial segregation. You are aware of these problems if you are reading books by Thomas Piketty, or reports from the Economic Policy Institute, or demographic sociology from Sean Reardon at Stanford University, but you sure don’t ever hear any politicians reflecting on these matters. Concentrated urban poverty is an issue our politicians won’t talk about, and it remains at the heart of our society’s biggest concerns for educating our children.
Second, the idea of instituting competition and rewarding success in a privatized system is grounded in a belief system that is contrary to the values by which our ancestors created a system of public education. Betsy DeVos and Mike Pence and others in the Trump administration prefer to assume we can improve our provision of education by allowing a relative few children to escape through vouchers or to charter schools. It’s a lifeboat strategy that gives a leg up to a few strivers even as it isolates the children who are expensive to educate—homeless children, recent immigrant children learning English, autistic and blind children—in the public schools required by law to serve them. This kind of thinking is epitomized by the mythology of the American Dream—that success is individual—accomplished through personal determination, grit, and patience. Adherents of this story prefer to believe that the starting blocks of the race are arranged to ensure we start at the same place. If we think about it, however, most of us will admit that some groups of people and some individuals have it harder than others. So… we adjust our thinking again—celebrating the outliers who surmount the obstacles and succeed anyway. Then we make policy based on the unusual success stories of these heroes. Some of us are even willing to articulate such a strategy honestly: “If we can’t find a way to help all children, at least we should help the ones who most deserve to escape.” There is a basic ethical question here: whether we believe in individual merit above all or whether we are committed to a philosophy of social responsibility that values the worth and seeks to protect the rights of each person. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has framed these contrasting beliefs in a simple formulation: “There are those who make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run. But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.” When Betsy DeVos says, “Government really sucks,” she is elevating the value of individual competition in an education marketplace and trashing the idea that the community, expressed through its democratic government, is responsible for the well being of all.
And third, money in politics makes it virtually impossible ever to regulate a privatized school choice marketplace. As long as there are unlimited political contributions being donated by individuals, along with PACs, and Super PACs, and Dark Money Groups investing to buy education policy, it doesn’t really matter if the goal is to privatize education to make a profit or merely to privatize because of an ideology like Betsy DeVos’s. All that money washing around in the politics of privatization is going to ensure that education privatization cannot possibly be regulated. People like Betsy DeVos will be able to contribute their way into office and to underwrite others who believe in—or profit from—the same ideology. State governments—already amenable to pressure from corporate money through organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council—will neglect to protect children because political contributions will ensure that privatization remains unregulated. A public system will work only when we can curb the flow of money buying private interests.
Those of us who worked to oppose Betsy DeVos’s nomination must remain actively engaged—demanding that our society grapple with how poverty constrains children’s academic promise, condemning an immoral strategy designed to privatize education and to serve a few at the expense of the many, and naming relentlessly the fact that a charter school marketplace can never be regulated as long as politics are flooded with money. We’ll have to build the political will to insist that our representatives understand that democratically governed public schools are the most promising institution for addressing these serious problems.