It surprised me to hear the word “clickbait” in Betsy DeVos’s working vocabulary. I wonder if it wasn’t put into her speech—on Monday in Baltimore at the Education Writers Association’s annual meeting—by one of her more with-it staffers. I confess that as a retired person, I was slow several years ago to grasp the meaning of the term, but as a blogger I know I paid attention, even before I knew the word, to the number of people who click on posts about particular topics. I realize, of course, that my purpose is to do justice, not to pay attention to the number of clicks on different subjects, but like all writers who post on-line, I notice. And I grieve about the paucity of clicks on worthy topics.
DeVos also described her weird philosophy of public education. The last time I remember her channeling Margaret Thatcher was in July of 2017 at a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council—the far-right, corporate driven, bill mill that creates the anti-regulatory and pro-privatization model bills that are then broadcast across the 50 state legislatures to be introduced.
I suspect this time, at the Education Writers Association, Betsy DeVos chose a less sympathetic audience.
In her prepared remarks for Monday’s speech, DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, emphasizes freedom from government as the foundation of her strategy. You’ll remember that DeVos is responsible for administering government programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that support K-12 public education across the Unite States. Her department’s Office for Civil Rights is also responsible for investigating reported violations of students’ civil rights in public schools.
DeVos went to the Education Writers Association to explain: “I entered public life to promote policies that empower all families. Notice that I said, ‘families,’ not government. It should surprise no one that I am a common-sense conservative with a healthy distrust of centralized government. Instead, I trust the American people to live their own lives and to decide their own destinies. That’s a freedom philosophy.”
DeVos is not a believer in taxes, and in fact she seems to disbelieve there is any kind of endeavor for which people might agree to share some of their privately earned money for a public purpose. At the Education Writers Association she explained: “I see the term ‘public money.’ And I’m reminded of something another education secretary often said. Margaret Thatcher said that government ‘has no source of money other than the money people earn themselves.’ There is no such thing as ‘public money,’ The Iron Lady was right.”
DeVos continues, introducing her newest proposal. She has asked Congress to create Education Freedom Scholarships—a tuition tax credit program to create private school tuition neo-vouchers: “Our proposal allows people to direct money they themselves have earned. They will voluntarily contribute to non-profit organizations that provide scholarships to students. It’s a much more effective and efficient way of getting resources to students who need them the most.” Of course, DeVos leaves out of her remarks that her proposal, if Congress were ever to pass it, would redirect $5 billion a year out of the federal treasury to support parental school choice.
On Monday, DeVos discouraged the education journalists in her audience from carefully exploring the nuances of the various school privatization schemes she promotes. She said: “(L)et’s get the terminology right about schools and school choice. Charter schools are public schools. Vouchers are not tax-credits nor are they tax-deductions nor education savings accounts nor 529 accounts. There are many different mechanisms that empower families to choose the education that’s right for their children. And they are just that: mechanisms.”
She concludes her remarks by presuming to re-define public education itself: “(L)et’s stop and rethink the definition of public education. Today, it’s often defined as one-type of school funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of ‘the public,’ then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to ‘the public.’ That should be the new definition of public education.”
When we think about it, of course, we discover some things missing from Betsy DeVos’s definition. Justice has never been about isolated individuals; it is always about the rights of individuals as they bind themselves together to form a society. Our society is anchored by the laws to which we have agreed through the democratic process. Today the law guarantees that all students must be admitted in public schools which are required to protect their rights by law and to ensure programming to serve their needs. Historically the law has provided the framework by which, in a democratic and transparent system, we have been able to insist on better services for vulnerable families who were historically left out. Advocacy for enforcement by law is why California has once again begun providing bilingual education after extremists shut down those programs a quarter century ago and instituted English only. Advocacy for enforcement of the law is what forced states to stop de jure school segregation after 1954. In the past decade, advocacy for enforcement of the law has brought protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in public schools.
The National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis describes the history of our traditional understanding of the importance of public schooling: “For our first 200 years, the paramount purpose for building and sustaining universal public education was to nurture democracy. Written into state constitutions, education was to consolidate a stew of different languages, religious affiliations, ethnic groups and levels of fortune into a working commonwealth. As Massachusetts’ constitutional framers wrote, ‘Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, (is) necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties….In the nineteenth century, Horace Mann, father of the common schools movement, said, ’Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.’ Through the twentieth century, the popular view was that universal education would produce an equal and democratic society.”
In more technical language in his new book, Education Inequality and School Finance, Rutgers University education economist Bruce Baker confronts DeVos’s confusion about the public purpose of investing public tax dollars : “The ‘money belongs to the child’ claim… falsely assumes that the only expenses associated with each individual’s education choices are the current annual expenses of educating that individual…. It ignores entirely marginal costs and economies of scale, foundational elements of origins of public institutions. We collect tax dollars and provide public goods and services because it allows us to do so at an efficient scale of operations… Public spending does not matter only to those using it here and now. These dollars don’t just belong to parents of children presently attending the schools, and the assets acquired with public funding… do not belong exclusively to those parents.” (Education Inequality and School Finance, p. 30)
In a 2007 book, Consumed, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber explores how privatization benefits the powerful and the privileged and exacerbates inequality and oppression: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)
On Monday, Betsy DeVos asked the education journalists to stop using her as clickbait. But there is no way journalists can stop Betsy DeVos from being clickbait. Her belief system is an utter contradiction to the position she holds. Today a person who does not believe in government’s role for providing public education heads up the federal government’s department responsible for overseeing the nation’s public schools. And after two years on the job, the U.S. Secretary of Education insists on traveling around the country broadcasting her intention to undermine the very institution for which she is responsible. The irony is so outrageous that everybody pays attention. Every time she speaks, our minds all immediately travel back to high school civics as we try to figure out how she gets it so wrong.
How delightful for me as a blogger. I can create a serious civics lesson about the public purpose of public education, and, merely by putting our U.S. Secretary of Education’s name in the headline, I can get people to click on it .