The Public Good? Betsy DeVos Doesn’t Get It.

When she spoke recently at the Education Writers Association, Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, swallowed whatever humility she has and presumed to redefine the role public education in our society.  Betsy loves freedom from government (even though she works for the government), and she can’t seem to discern any difference between what is good for the individual and what is good for us all together.

Here is what she told the nation’s education journalists: “I entered public life to promote policies that empower all families. Notice that I said ‘families,’ not government… 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… 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! … Let’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.” So Betsy defines public schools and charter schools and private schools funded with vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts, and home schooling and maybe even Girl Scouts and piano lessons as public education.  It is pretty hard to see where she would draw the line.

In a recent Washington Post column, Adam Laats, a professor of education at the State University of New York in Binghamton, refutes DeVos’s new definition of public education as entirely impractical.  Laats looks back at education in the United States very early in the nineteenth century, when we basically had a public-private model, and shows why we replaced that old model with something that worked better—universal, publicly funded education:

“DeVos’s ‘new definition’ is exactly how American elites thought about public education in the first half of the 19th century… (T)he first generation of education leaders begged and borrowed from governments and private philanthropists to create schools for all, believing their project was of benefit to the American public. Back then, a public school was simply one that served the public; the funding usually came from a blend of public and private sources, and the schools themselves were usually run by churches and private charitable organizations, not government agencies… In a sense, that first generation of school reformers had a good excuse for hoping they could truly serve the needs of  all schoolchildren, rich and poor, without adequate public funding. After all, it was uncharted territory. They hoped they could rely on the ‘hand of charity’ and the ‘munificence’ of legislators to keep their public schools running.” “(E)ventually citizens all across the nation realized that only regular taxes could fill the holes in school budgets and offer predictable funding streams.  As a result, they established the tax-funding model we still rely on today—the model DeVos is so quick to dismiss… With the experience of two centuries of public education, we have no excuse to believe public education can be left to the whims of well-meaning philanthropists and the optional largesse of legislators. Our public schools are not ‘charity.’ Their budgets are not ‘munificence,’ subject to the whims of corporate benefactors, but rather the hard-won legacy of public funding for all, by all.”

The development of our public education system wasn’t merely a function of how our schools could be financed, however. Even before our society achieved a universal system of publicly funded schools, people were considering that education ought to serve a public purpose. In 1785, pronouncing public purpose and public ownership as necessary for America’s schools, John Adams declared: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”  Incorporating such a sense of public purpose, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set aside one section of each township for a school, but, as Laats points out, it wasn’t until the 1830s and the 1840s that states began to establish real public systems.

Public education has been conceived for generations as the the foundation for the formation of an American public. The education historian David Tyack defines the kind of public purpose for schools that Betsy DeVos, in her fervent individualism, seems unable to conceptualize: “The founders of the nation were convinced that the republic could survive only if its citizens were properly educated. This was a collective purpose, not simply an individual benefit or payoff to an interest group… The common school… was a place for both young and adult citizens to discover common ground, and when they did not  agree, to seek principled compromise.” (Finding Common Ground, pp. 1-2)

In 1915, the education philosopher John Dewey declared: “A government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in the voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education.” (Democracy and Education, p. 87)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed a commitment to education’s collective purpose in a letter to his children: “I don’t ever want you to forget that there are millions of God’s children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are.  For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.”

In a stunning 2009 letter he sent to President Barack Obama and published widely, the Chicago education professor Bill Ayers similarly defines the collective purpose of public education: “Surely school leaders in fascist Germany or communist Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia all agreed, for example, that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, do their homework, study hard, and master the subject matter, so those things don’t differentiate a democratic education from any other.  What makes education in a democracy distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal… that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each; conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.”  Lacking nuanced thinking, Betsy DeVos limits herself to the full development of each.

We have not achieved justice in our public system of education. But critics advocating for improving the public system continue to believe a universal public system is the only place where equity and access can be protected by law. Realizing that justice is, by definition, structural and systemic, with a society’s laws and primary institutions the mechanisms for distributing opportunity, the Rev. Jesse Jackson condemned a prominent 2009 education reform program at the same time he defined universal education as a moral imperative and the only possible path to equity: “There are those who would 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.” (December, 2011 Town Hall, Schott Foundation for Public Education)

Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman concisely identifies the flaw in the kind of schooling Betsy DeVos would prefer—a marketplace of increasingly privatized educational alternatives to the public schools (but, of course, all publicly funded): “As more and more government functions get privatized, states become pay-to-play paradises in which both political contributions and contracts for friends and relatives become a quid pro quo for getting government business…. a corrupt nexus of privatization and patronage that is undermining government across much of our nation.”

Writing about charter schools specifically, New York professors Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine condemn our society’s anti-tax, anti-public ethos: “Ultimately, charter policy hides a profound failure of political will—more specifically, a failure of business, legislative, and media leadership to support the kinds of budgets, taxation, and targeted investment necessary to revive public education as a key element of social and economic development and racial justice in the poorest communities.” (Charter Schools and the Corporate Makeover of Public Education: What’s at Stake? , p 87)

With Betsy DeVos, however, it all comes down to freedom, which she refuses to consider might possibly be enhanced by a legal system designed to protect each person’s rights. Instead Betsy believes strongly in freedom FROM government. Public commitment formalized in the social contract is too burdensome for Betsy DeVos. The American way, in DeVos’s system, has to do with individual freedom to compete and prosper.

Which brings us to the extremely lucid formulation by the late political theorist, Benjamin Barber: “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)


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