Betsy DeVos is a libertarian. One cannot drill this concept often enough. DeVos believes in the freedom of individuals to make the choices that benefit themselves and their children. It is the kind of thinking that promotes the rights of individuals above all else. Wikipedia’s definition of libertarianism perfectly describes the thinking of Betsy DeVos: “Libertarians seek to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association, individual judgment, and self-ownership.” Libertarians don’t believe government should interfere with individual liberty.
The other day, Betsy DeVos made people in the audience mad when she addressed the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (We’ll ignore for a minute the fact that charter schools are, as a form of private contracting, not really public schools.), because she didn’t seem fully to endorse charter schooling. Here is what she said: “Charter schools are here to stay… But we must recognize that charters aren’t the right fit for every child. For many children, neither a traditional nor a charter… school works for them… I suggest we focus less on what word comes before ‘school,’ whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed… and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve… We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.” She also emphasized “the parents’ right to decide.”
She also criticized the bureaucracy and red tape that she believes are hampering charter schools, a critique meaning that DeVos rejects the role of government to protect our society through regulation. For DeVos, government regulation is the enemy, which is why the Great Lakes Education Project—the Michigan lobbying organization founded and funded by DeVos and her family—strong-armed the Michigan legislature to defeat the plan for a Detroit Education Commission to bring Detroit’s out-of-control, for-profit charter school sector under some oversight and to ensure that schools open in neighborhoods that need schools instead of neighborhoods with an oversupply of schools.
Betsy DeVos’s libertarianism allows her to ignore the concept of opportunity cost in education. She worries about liberty and freedom for each particular parent and child, but the mechanics of how we’ll pay for all this elude her. Economists call it “opportunity cost” when, because the budget is fixed, we have to choose what we can afford. If we choose one kind of publicly funded school, we can’t also fund private alternatives unless we increase the budget. Opportunity cost in education is obvious to parents of children in public schools whose classes are getting larger, for example. Our problem is threefold, but Betsy DeVos doesn’t notice: (1) the overall federal budget for education has declined due to austerity budgeting and the sequester, (2) state budgets, a primary source of education funding, have fallen in nearly half the states since the 2008 recession, and (3) we have at the same time added publicly funded, privatized alternatives—charter schools and vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Hence, we’ve lost the opportunity to spend as much on the public schools—which continue to educate 90 percent of our society’s children.
There are a mass of other negative spillover costs for society as a whole from school privatization—problems Betsy DeVos chooses not to see because she worries about individuals, not institutions. We judge the privatized educational alternatives by test scores (the mis-measure our society uses exclusively these days to evaluate schools), but even in cases where students’ test scores rise and we brag about the “successful” privatized alternatives, we know there is other negative collateral damage from the privatization. Bruce Baker and Gordon Lafer have documented that in big city school districts, when the number of charters is rapidly expanded—particularly when charter operators choose the neighborhoods where they want to open schools—the charter sector operates as a parasite on the host public school district. After charters drain neighborhood public schools of children as parents are lured by charter school advertising, some public schools empty out and are closed. As the process proceeds, there is nowhere for children to return if the charter school proves academically deficient or is later closed. The neighborhood has at the same time lost the public schools as institutional anchors. When students leave for privatized alternatives, there are also stranded costs for the public schools, stranded costs for building staff, facilities, and transportation that cannot be recouped. Unlike public schools, private schools are not required to serve all children. Private schools accepting vouchers are able to pick and choose the students they accept, and privatized charter schools can push out students with behavior problems or low test scores. Charters and schools accepting vouchers are rarely staffed to serve severely handicapped children and English language learners, the children who require the expensive services the public system must continue to provide. And the federal civil rights laws that protect the rights of such children can be ignored by private schools.
In contrast to DeVos’s libertarian worldview, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson consider education a social and civic project, something that can’t be shopped for by individuals in a competitive marketplace: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive… and the means… to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.”(American Amnesia, p. 65)
In a column published this week, Arthur Camins, a lifelong public school and college educator, explains that we cannot counter Betsy DeVos’s libertarian philosophy of education simply by reciting these arguments about the ways privatization does not work. It is the philosophy of individualism itself that must be rejected: “It is time to care about the education of other people’s children. Other people’s children are or will be our neighbors. Other people’s children—from almost anywhere in the United States and beyond—could end up as our co-workers. Other people’s children are tomorrow’s potential voters. How, what and with whom they learn impacts us all. That is why we have public schools, paid for with pooled taxes. They are designed to serve the public good—not just to suit individual parents’ desires… I refuse to accept the ethos of selfishness and winning in a world of ruthless competition. Education policy focused on the educational choices of individual parents is not just morally repugnant but stupid and shortsighted. Does anyone really think that giving every parent the right to choose which school to send their children to is a recipe for raising the next generation of knowledgeable, capable, caring Americans?”
Camins condemns not only the kind of individualism Betsy DeVos promotes but also our broader political climate for tolerating inequality of opportunity across American school districts, educational inequality that grows from our society’s economic inequality: “Of course, some schools do a better job than others…. (T)he big differentials in education outcomes are the result of political decisions about local, state and federal policy and funding. More significant, they are the result of our country’s refusal to do anything substantive about the residential segregation and distrust that continually enable, perpetuate, and exacerbate inequity. The differences are the result of growing inequality, concentrated poverty, and the purposeful oblivion of those who live comfortably stable, if insulated lives. The differences are the result of an intentional political campaign to convince folks in the middle of the socioeconomic spectrum—whose lives are hardly easy or secure—to blame other people who struggle even more, rather than the wealthy 1% who wield the levers of economic and political power.”
None of the world’s major religions has an ethical system based on the prowess of the individual and the survival of the fittest. Ethics is always about the way we conduct our relationships with other people in community. Here is the way a Christian, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman defines the concept of justice in a civic institution like our public school system: “Justice is the community’s guarantee of the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life of society… It is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for participation.”