What can she be thinking? Can she be thinking at all? That is what I wondered when I read what Betsy DeVos told the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) last Thursday.
Here is what our U.S. Secretary of Education said: “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.” She continued: “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.'”
In her ALEC speech, DeVos continued, explaining her disagreement with the American Federation of Teachers: “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.”
DeVos continued—defining her own philosophy of education as derived from England’s 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 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.”
I guess DeVos has now explained what she meant in 2015 when she declared, “Government really sucks.” I guess she believes the common good will magically arrive when all this self-seeking is aggregated.
I have a lot of problems with this kind of magical thinking. First, the idea is that government ought to get out of the way, but at the same time, there is the assumption that government ought to pay for it all with vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts on top of the traditional schools. Who is going to want to pay taxes for all of this and why should we? If individuals are on their own, maybe individuals and families ought to take care of it.
Except that poor families, and families in marginalized groups, and families whose children are severely handicapped, and families whose children need to learn English, and families who live in isolated rural areas and families who live in the poorest neighborhoods of big cities are going to struggle to find places where they can go to find the exact kind of education their children need. They will struggle to discern the truth through the glitzy advertising, and there may not be good choices in every town and every neighborhood, without the government schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children. And many of these families may not be able to afford it, because they won’t have enough money to add to the voucher to pay for many of the privatized alternatives. And finally, some of the privatized schools (that are not required by government to serve all children) will turn away or push out their children, especially the children who require expensive special services and the children who are likely to post low test scores.
Betsy DeVos demonstrates an amazing cluelessness about what life is like for people who aren’t billionaires like herself. Although people like DeVos may be able to afford any of a wide range of choices, most parents in our country—about 90 percent of them—send their children to the schools the government has provided—schools required to provide appropriate services for all kinds of children.
The most serious problem, however, with Betsy DeVos’s libertarian, government-free fantasy is that she seems unaware that government is the institution that protects children’s rights by law and ensures, by law, that education is provided for all children in our country. High school students in civics class and immigrants preparing for their citizenship exam learn about the three branches of our government—defined in each case in relation to the concept of a government by law. The legislative branch makes the laws; the executive branch administers the laws; and the judicial branch interprets the laws.
The law is what ensures that public schools serve all those groups of parents that we listed—poor families, families in marginalized groups, families of children with handicaps, families whose children need to learn English, families living in rural areas, and families in neighborhoods where services are missing or deficient. The law also protects the rights of individuals from injustice committed in or by any of these institutions.
When society is failing to fulfill its obligation according to the law, the law protects citizens’ right to demand what the law has guaranteed but is failing to provide. The law provides the framework by which, in a democratic and transparent system, we can all demand better services for vulnerable families who have been 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.
Justice is never about isolated individuals; it is always about the rights of individuals as together they form a society. Justice also involves the balance of power among the institutions that societies create. In the tweet Betsy DeVos quoted in her speech, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) described the need to protect our system of education. The AFT recognizes the need to protect institutional and structural justice, not merely the choices of individuals. Why? History tells us that individuals who choose the best education they can get for their own children too frequently forget other people’s children.
Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the ethicist, tells us that “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.” (Christian Perspectives on Politics, pp. 216-217)
Last year, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson published a book that covers the lesson too many Americans have forgotten from their civics classes about the role of government. Here is how they begin: “This book is about an uncomfortable truth: It takes government—a lot of government—for advanced societies to flourish. This truth is uncomfortable because Americans cherish freedom. Government is effective in part because it limits freedom—because in the language of political philosophy, it exercises legitimate coercion. Government can tell people they must send their children to school rather than the fields, that they can’t dump toxins into the water or air, and that they must contribute to meet expenses that benefit the entire community. To be sure, government also secures our freedom. Without its ability to compel behavior, it would not just be powerless to protect our liberties; it would cease to be a vehicle for achieving many of our most important shared ends.” (American Amnesia, p. 1).
Hacker and Pierson continue, quoting James Madison: “There never was a Government without force. What is the meaning of government? An institution to make people do their duty. A Government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of Government, or rather no Government at all.” (American Amnesia, pp. 1-2)
And these political scientists conclude: “We suffer, in short, from a kind of mass historical forgetting, a distinctively ‘American Amnesia.’ At a time when we face serious challenges that can be addressed only through a stronger, more effective government—a strained middle class, a weakened system for generating life-improving innovation, a dangerously warming planet—we ignore what both our history and basic economic theory suggest: We need a constructive and mutually beneficial tension between markets and government rather than the jealous rivalry that so many misperceive—and in that misperception, help foster. Above all, we need a government strong and capable enough to rise above narrow private interests and carry out long-term courses of action on behalf of broader concerns.” American Amnesia, p. 2, emphasis in the original)
It may not be possible to silence Betsy DeVos and her long rant against the government system she is supposed to be administering. At the very least, however, those of us who prize America’s institution of public education must just as insistently reject her foolishness.