John Dewey, Paul Wellstone… and Betsy DeVos?

Betsy DeVos has weakened, through rule changes, protection for the victims of campus sexual assault, reduced protections for transgender youths, shortened and made more superficial the investigations of civil rights complaints, and reduced some of Obama’s sanctions against for-profit colleges. There also seem to be changes coming in the administration of student loans. But as far as the operation and funding of K-12 public schools, she hasn’t been able to move major changes through Congress.

I would argue, however, that the most serious damage she is inflicting is her use of her power as Secretary of Education to undermine the philosophy of education most of us have merely assumed was true, because it has always been the explanation we’ve heard as the reason for public schools. Most of us can’t articulate that philosophy because we’ve merely taken it for granted.

Here are two simple statement, by experts, of what most of us just accept. Philosopher John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  The late Senator Paul Wellstone made it even simpler: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy.”  Leave aside for a moment the fact that these are aspirational goals: Our society has not fulfilled these promises for the most vulnerable children, but we have made some progress over the years expanding the provision of education for the children we’ve left out or left behind simply because we have believed in the broader principles of equal access and opportunity.

Dewey and Wellstone promoted a philosophy of social responsibility. Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, promotes a philosophy of individual freedom. It is a very different way of thinking.

In a major policy address in July, here is how Betsy DeVos described her philosophy of education: “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them… Just the other week, the American Federation of Teachers tweeted at me… ‘Betsy DeVos says (the) public should invest in individual students. NO. We should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.’… I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system—one that was created in the 1800s—than about individual students.  They are saying education is not an investment in individual students.”  Betsy DeVos continued, remembering Margaret Thatcher: “Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on ‘society.’ But, ‘Who is society?’ she asked. ‘There is no such thing!  There are individual men and women and there are families’—families, she said—‘and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.’”  Finally, DeVos summed up what she has learned from Margaret Thatcher: “This isn’t about school ‘systems.’  This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students. Not the other way around.”

As a description of schooling for children, DeVos’s statement makes little sense. She doesn’t explain anything about the operation and funding of school schools—I guess, because she doesn’t believe in any kind of system. DeVos’s statement is merely a declaration of libertarian ideology.  This must be what she meant back in 2015 when she said, “Government really sucks.”

In addition to her words, the venues where DeVos has been speaking about her education philosophy tell us about her philosophy of education.

The speech about Margaret Thatcher was a keynote at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange  Council (ALEC).  Economist, Gordon Lafer explains that ALEC is “the most important national organization advancing the corporate agenda at the state level.”  It “brings together two thousand member legislators (one-quarter of all state lawmakers, including many state senate presidents and House Speakers) and the country’s largest corporations to formulate and promote business-friendly legislation… Thus, state legislators with little time, staff, or expertise are able to introduce fully formed and professionally supported bills. The organization claims to introduce eight hundred to one thousand bills each year in the fifty state legislatures, with 20 percent becoming law.  Ultimately, the ‘exchange’ that ALEC facilitates is between corporate donors and state legislators.  The corporations pay ALEC’s expenses and contribute to legislators’ campaigns; in return, legislators carry the corporate agenda into their statehouses.” (The One Percent Solution, p 13)

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s collaboration with ALEC: “For decades, DeVos has been working at the state level, in philosophical alliance with the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push state laws that expand school choice and privatization.  That agenda scored a victory recently in Illinois, where… Gov. Bruce Rauner (R)… had thrown his support to DeVos’s nomination as education secretary in January.  It was no surprise when Rauner managed to push through a new school funding law recently in the state legislature that included a new program that uses public dollars to fund private and religious school tuition and educational expenses.”

Another recent example is the Mackinac Island address DeVos just delivered to the 32nd biannual conference of the Michigan Republican Party.  Here is Nancy Kaffer, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press: “There’s something really through-the-looking-glass about DeVos addressing a room full of legislators whose campaigns she has funded, lobbyists whose work she has paid for, and activists whose movements she launched.  This is, in a very real way, a room DeVos built, in a state her family has shaped, in a country whose educational policy she now plays a key role in administering… The DeVoses are by no means the only big-money donors, on either side of the political aisle.  But in Michigan, it’s difficult to find a significant state-level policy change the DeVos family hasn’t backed: right-to-work, pension reform, unfettered school choice… DeVos is now in a powerful position to spread her philosophy of unconstrained school choice to the rest of the country.  But Michigan is left to deal with the mess that the charter movement has wrought.”

Finally there is the conference beginning today at Harvard’s Kennedy School.  It is important to note that the conference is part of Paul Peterson’s right-wing funded think-tank, the Program on Education Policy and Governance, which is situated in the Kennedy School; this is not the university’s college of education.  Betsy DeVos is one of the keynoters at this particular conference, which, reports Graham Vyse of the New Republic, is being sponsored primarily by the Charles Koch Foundation and EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The title of the September 28-29 conference transparently identifies its libertarian slant: “The Future of School Choice: Helping Students Succeed.”  Here are some of the presenters beginning, of course, with Paul Peterson, the program’s host: Paul DiPerna (EdChoice), Robert Enlow (EdChoice), Matthew Ladner (Charles Koch Institute), Jason Riley (Wall Street Journal), Betheny Gross (Center on Reinventing Public Education), Robert Pondiscio (Thomas B. Fordham Institute), Macke Raymond (The Center for Research on Education Outcomes and The Hoover Institution), Brian Gill (Mathematica Policy Research), Chris Cerf (New Jersey Department of Education and formerly of Joel Klein’s operation running the NYC schools), and Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools). Not surprisingly, as Vyse points out, on this conference’s agenda there are no presenters who are critics of school choice.

We are hearing a lot these day from the far, far right when it comes to education and much less from those who believe that public education is part of our nation’s historical commitment to social responsibility. It is worth contemplating seriously the rest of Senator Paul Wellstone’s definition of our society’s obligation to do much better for our most vulnerable children. Here is what he said in March, 2000 in an address at a very different kind of venue— Teachers College, Columbia University: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

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