When Betsy DeVos Goes on the Campaign Trail for President Trump, Here Is the Ideology She Promotes

If you listened to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Message last week, you know that he lauded school choice and attacked government schools: “The next step forward in building an inclusive society is making sure that every young American gets a great education and the opportunity to achieve the American Dream… Yet for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”

In the speech, Trump said these words as part of supporting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s proposed $5 billion program for private school tuition vouchers. DeVos’s tax credit vouchers have been the centerpiece of the President’s proposed education budget for several years running, and so far they haven’t actually made it into federal policy.  Instead Congress has continued to support more essential federal programs, Title I for the schools serving children in poverty, and the mandated programming under the Individuals with Disability Education Act.  In the leanest years, Congress has kept these two essential federal supports at least flat-funded.  And in December of 2019, in the final budget for the current year, Congress added $450 million for Title I and $410 million for IDEA. Such modest increases for these essential programs are not enough to help our 90,000 public schools even keep up with the growing number of children qualifying for these programs, but at least Congress has been absolutely clear about its priorities: Neither tuition tax credits nor any other private school tuition vouchers are a current Congressional priority.

But despite that Betsy DeVos’s federal tuition tax credit proposal seems to be going nowhere, we are seeing and hearing from Betsy a lot these days.  As the President pursues his 2020 campaign for reelection, he has been sending Betsy on the campaign trail and to other events aimed at audiences who want more marketplace school choice.  She showed up with Vice President Mike Pence at a Wisconsin event celebrating the recent School Choice Week, and she is making calls to Ohio legislators to ensure they will ram through the rapid expansion of the state’s EdChoice Voucher program.

Late last week, POLITICO’s Michael Stratford described Betsy DeVos playing a new role at Trump political rallies and other events: to enhance the President’s reputation as someone who would strengthen school choice by expanding public spending for private and religious schools.

Here is Stratford’s analysis: “Betsy DeVos may be one of the most hated members of Donald Trump’s Cabinet, constantly mocked by Democrats on the campaign trail.  But away from the multitudes of critics and protesters, DeVos is being deployed like a rock star at Trump events as he makes a concerted push on education issues.  The campaign is using DeVos, a devout Christian, to beef up ties with voters who see her as the fiercest defender of conservative education policies like vouchers and free speech on college campuses.  The education secretary was among the dozens of surrogates the campaign tapped for its show of force during the Iowa caucuses on Monday.  She’s traveled to Wisconsin with Vice President Mike Pence for an official event promoting ‘school choice,’ her hallmark issue in office.  And on Wednesday night, DeVos headlined a lively Women for Trump campaign rally with Pence just outside Harrisburg, PA, at times generating thunderous applause… In full political attack mode, DeVos tore into the Democratic presidential candidates… accusing them of ‘trying to out-socialist one another.'”

It has been a long time since this blog focused directly on the thinking and language of Betsy DeVos and her attacks on government and public education.  Maybe, now that she is being deployed to political rallies around the country, it is a good time for a review.

Trump’s scornful language about “government schools” comes right from DeVos, who, in 2015, before she became U.S. Secretary of Education, told a crowd at the SXSWed convention in Austin, Texas: “Government really sucks, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power.”

In 2017, after she was U.S. Secretary of Education, in a keynote address at the annual meeting of the (far-right) American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Betsy DeVos expounded at greater length about her view of government and the public schools: “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.”  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. ‘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.’” “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.”

Pushed by people like Betsy DeVos (and Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, the Koch brothers, and the American Legislative Exchance Council), our society has moved over recent decades in the direction of promoting individual self-interest at the expense of community responsibility.  While Secretary DeVos’s thinking privileges the individual at the expense of our society, however, public education is premised on a very different idea: that a just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community.  Public schools are intended to serve the needs of particular children and at the same time serve our society by preparing citizens to participate actively in our democracy.  While Betsy DeVos may suggest that the sum of individual choices will automatically constitute the needs of society, there is no evidence that individual choices based on self-interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population.

When Betsy DeVos promotes more choices for parents in an education marketplace, she ignores that competition is one of the defining operating mechanisms of any marketplace. Individuals compete to get ahead; markets always have winners and losers.  DeVos forgets about the need to protect the vulnerable. In America’s public schools, however, laws passed democratically and enforced by government protect public school families who are likely to lose out in a system based entirely on school choice: 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. Laws also protect the rights of families and children when public institutions violate their rights.

in their 2016 book, American Amnesia, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson disagree strenuously with the kind of philosophy of individualism promoted by Betsy DeVos.  They define the necessary role of government: “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)

One governmental role mentioned here by Hacker and Pierson is the role of government regulations, the very kind of regulations on behalf of society as a whole that the Trump administration has spent three years rolling back—from regulations to protect the environment to regulations protecting college students taking out huge loans when they are preyed upon by for-profit colleges, to civil guidance protecting LGBT students. When tax dollars are diverted to private schools through vouchers, students are being supported with government funds in schools lacking regulations to protect the rights of the students. Many private and religious schools do not, for example, provide the kind of special education programs that public schools are required to ensure.

It is also important to remember that while Betsy DeVos claims that “government really sucks,” her proposals for privatizing public education always assume that government will pay for the privatized alternatives.  The money for charter schools and vouchers and tuition tax credit vouchers and education savings account vouchers is always extracted from the state and local budgets of public school systems.  Political economist Gordon Lafer has documented, for example, that in California, charter schools suck $57.3 million every year from the public Oakland Unified School District.

The late political philosopher, Benjamin Barber describes what happens when institutions like public education are privatized: “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)

As Betsy DeVos promotes individualism and marketplace school choice during this election year, it is important to consider the importance of the social contract as Benjamin Barber defines it.

Neoliberalism Undermines the Common Good by Promoting Vouchers and Charter Schools

When you read about “neoliberalism,” do you clearly understand the term and what people mean when they talk about neoliberal education reform?  It is confusing because “neoliberal” is used to describe policies we typically think of as politically conservative, while political liberals are the people we think of as supporting programs typified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  How is it that we call the people who support school privatization through vouchers and charter schools “neoliberals?”

For those of us who are not political theorists, Robert Kuttner simply and clearly defines “neoliberalism.” Kuttner is the  co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. Kuttner hardly touches on the specific area of neoliberalism as it applies to public education, but his precise definition is invaluable for clarifying our thinking. “It’s worth taking a moment to unpack the term ‘neoliberalism.’ The coinage can be confusing to American ears because the ‘liberal’ part refers not to the word’s ordinary American usage, meaning moderately left-of-center, but to classical economic liberalism otherwise known as free-market economics. The ‘neo’ part refers to the reassertion of the claim that the laissez-faire model of the economy was basically correct after all. Few proponents of these views embraced the term neoliberal. Mostly, they called themselves free-market conservatives. ‘Neoliberal’ was a coinage used mainly by their critics, sometimes as a neutral descriptive term, sometimes as an epithet. The use became widespread in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.”

Kuttner traces the history of neoliberalism: “Since the late 1970s. we’ve had a grand experiment to test the claim that free markets really do work best… (I)n the 1970s, libertarian economic theory got another turn at bat…  Neoliberalism’s premise is that free markets can regulate themselves; that government is inherently incompetent, captive to special interests, and an intrusion on the efficiency of the market; that in distributive terms, market outcomes are basically deserved; and that redistribution creates perverse incentives by punishing the economy’s winners and rewarding its losers. So government should get out of the market’s way.”

“Beginning in the 1970s, resurrected free-market theory was interwoven with both conservative politics and significant investments in the production of theorists and policy intellectuals. This occurred not just in well-known conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Cato, and the Manhattan Institute, but through more insidious investments in academia. Lavishly funded centers and tenured chairs were underwritten by the Olin, Scaife, Bradley, and other far-right foundations to promote such variants of free-market theory as law and economics, public choice, rational choice, cost-benefit analysis, maximize-shareholder-value, and kindred schools of thought.”

Kuttner traces the impact of neoliberal theory on the broader economy: “By the 1990s, even moderate liberals had been converted to the belief that social objectives can be achieved by harnessing the power of markets… Now, after nearly half a century, the verdict is in. Virtually every one of these policies has failed, even on their own terms.  Enterprise has been richly rewarded, taxes have been cut, and regulation reduced or privatized. The economy is vastly more unequal, yet economic growth is slower and more chaotic than during the era of managed capitalism.  Deregulation has produced not salutary competition, but market concentration.  Economic power has resulted in feedback loops of political power, in which elites make rules that bolster further concentration… This is a story of power using theory.”

Moving closer to what has happened in the area of public education, Kuttner adds: “In addition to deregulation, three prime areas of practical neoliberal policies are the use of vouchers as ‘market-like’ means to social goals, the privatization of public services, and the use of tax subsidies rather than direct outlays. In every case, government revenues are involved, so this is far from a free market to begin with. But the premise is that market disciplines can achieve public purposes more efficiently than direct public provision.”

Kuttner skims only briefly the role of neoliberalism in various areas of public policy including healthcare, housing, incarceration, transportation and education.  Providing the direct link from neoliberal economic theory to its consequences for our nation’s public schools, last Friday, Diane Ravitch posted a commentary by Shawgi Tell, a professor of education at Nazareth College in New York, who examines the role of neoliberalism in public education policy. Tell is responding to a recent Washington Post column in which David Osborne argues: “‘Privatization’ doesn’t make charter schools bad. It makes them like Obamacare and Medicare.” Tell condemns Osborne’s column as the epitomy of neoliberalism. David Osborne is the Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Tell describes Osborne’s work: “David Osborne is one of America’s foremost neoliberal demagogues. He is a major representative of the so called ‘Third Way,’ a clever label for destructive neoliberal aims, policies, and arrangements.  His constant attacks on public right can be found at the website of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is not progressive at all…. Osborne has spent much of his life attacking the public sector and pushing for its privatization (‘reinvention’) as fast as possible.  He has long been heavily funded by wealthy private interests that support neoliberal policies in every sector and sphere of society.  In the sphere of education, Osborne has been a relentless supporter of privately-operated, low-transparency charter schools, which are notorious for being unaccountable, segregated, deunionized, and corrupt.”

Tell condemns the distortions he notices in Osborne’s recent Washington Post column: “The core and stubborn error with Osborne’s entire ‘argument’ here and elsewhere, is that it rests mainly on thoroughly and deliberately confusing the critical difference between the private and public spheres, including the very different aims, roles, and purposes of each in a modern society….  Osborne desperately wants people to believe that it is more than OK if public goods, programs, and services are operated, ‘delivered,’ or owned by the private sector. He claims that such an arrangement does not render something privatized or problematic, and that it should not really matter who runs things, as long as ‘the results’ are ‘good.'”

Tell explains why it is so important to understand that public and private mean different things. “Public and private mean the opposite of each other… Public refers to everyone, the common good, the general interests of society.  Public means inclusive, open and non-rivalrous.  A public service, for example, is usually free or close to free so that it is accessible by all. A public good is one that benefits everyone, whether they use it or not.  Private, on the other hand, means exclusive, not for everyone, not inclusive, not shared… Private wealthy interests and the common good are not identical; they actually contradict each other… In reality, public goods, services, and programs are not commodities.  They are not ‘consumer goods’ or ‘costs.’  They cannot be reduced to mere budgetary issues. This is a capital-centered way of viewing things. They are basic social human responsibilities that must be provided in a way that ensures the well-being of society and the economy. Approaching social responsibility as a business, contract, or commodity enriches wealthy private interests and lowers the quantity and quality of services for the majority. It also increases corruption and impunity.”

The late political theorist Benjamin Barber provides the clearest definition of the distinction between public and private purposes and the central flaw of neoliberal theory: “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….  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… 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)