A week ago, at one of the nation’s most conservative Christian colleges, Betsy DeVos delivered a vehement attack on the idea of public education. With the election coming up next week, we can hope it was the final attack on the institution of public schooling DeVos will deliver from per perch as U.S. Secretary of Education.
In a column last Wednesday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes DeVos’s Hillsdale College address: “In 2015, billionaire Betsy DeVos declared that ‘government really sucks’—and after serving nearly four years as U.S. education secretary, she has not tempered that view one iota. She gave a speech this week at a Christian college disparaging the U.S. public education system, saying it is set up to replace the home and family. While blasting the government is nothing new for DeVos—critics see her as the most ideological and anti-public-education secretary in the Education Department’s 40-plus-year history—she gave what may be her fiercest anti-government polemic at the Hillsdale College event in her home state…. She explained how her philosophy was formed by Abraham Kuyper, a neo-Calvinist Dutch theologian-turned-politician who was prime minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905 and who believed that Protestant, Catholic and secular groups should run their own independent schools and colleges. The United States could fix its education system, she said, if it were to ‘go Dutch’ by embracing ‘the family as the sovereign sphere that is, a sphere that predates government altogether.'”
Strauss reprints DeVos’s Hillsdale College speech in its entirety. In it DeVos confides to her audience the secret she has learned while serving as our education secretary: “I assume most of you have never stepped foot inside the U.S. Department of Education. And I can report, you haven’t missed much. These past few years I’ve gotten a close-up view of what that building focuses on. And let me tell you, it’s not on students. It’s on rules and regulations. Staff and standards. Spending and strings. On protecting ‘the system.'” Remember Betsy’s notorious rebuke all those years ago: “Government really sucks.”
DeVos brags about her accomplishments as Secretary of Education: “(W)e restored state, local, and family control of education by faithfully implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), by ending Common Core, and by urging Congress to put an end to education earmarks by consolidating nearly all Federal K-12 programs into one block grant. We expanded the in-demand D.C. voucher program…. We supported the creation of more public charter schools… And we support the bipartisan School Choice Now Act.” Strauss explains that ESSA was passed in 2015 before DeVos became Secretary of Education and tells us that the Common Core had already faded, though it is still in place in several states. Strauss reminds readers that many of the supposed accomplishments DeVos brags about were mere initiatives proposed but never enacted. Congress did not, for example, buy into consolidating all of the Department’s programs into a single block grant, and the School Choice Now Act, introduced by Senator Tim Scott, is merely a proposal for DeVos’s $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarships, a tuition tax credit program DeVos has inserted into the department’s budget every year, but a budget appropriation Congress has repeatedly refused to enact. Scott introduced the program as a piece of stand-alone legislation this year, but Congress has not passed the law.
In her Hillsdale College address DeVos suggests that the average U.S. public school expenditure-per-pupil (encompassing federal, state and local dollars) of $15,000 should be given to families like a little portable backpack that the child could carry to whatever education institution the family chooses. Neglecting to point out that the bulk of that money pays for teachers and other essential school staff, DeVos says: “Now, I can imagine what you’re thinking: ‘I could educate my child for 15 thousand dollars per year!’.. You could improve your child’s outcomes with that kind of money. A single parent in Detroit, or Flint, or Grand Rapids could open the door to a better life for their child if only they had control of how taxpayer dollars are spent on their child’s education. America’s parents agree. There’s a mighty chorus, rising in volume and urgency, supporting parental ‘school choice.'”
While Betsy DeVos suggests that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, the political theorist Benjamin Barber explains why choices based on self interest fail to protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards necessary in a modern complex democracy: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens….” (Consumed, p. 132)
Because our schools are public, over more than two centuries of our nation’s history, Congress and the 50 state legislatures have been able to pass statutes to protect the rights of all children, and the courts have interpreted these laws to ensure that the the meaning of the promise to protect every child’s rights has expanded. As primary civic institutions the public schools have inevitably embodied the biases and injustices embraced by our society, but over time as advocates have insisted that we learn to understand the ways our public schools have failed to live up to our nation’s promises, our legislative and legal systems have been able to ensure that schools have moved closer to justice.
We have already come a long way. Since the early nineteenth century the history of U.S. public education has been the story of the struggle—justified by the promise of equality in the founding documents—to expand the definition of the right to public education to include students who were previously discounted and excluded—to girls and women—to African Americans during and after the Civil War, freed slaves who had been intentionally excluded from literacy—to American Indians—to immigrants—to the disabled.
The battle to expand the meaning of equality included the struggle to ensure that African Americans would not be segregated into inferior and separate schools and once able to enter a city’s public schools, would not be pushed into manual training classes and excluded from the academic track. Women, African Americans, and immigrants finally have increased the possibility of pursuing all kinds of professions that once excluded them. American Indians, once shunted into boarding schools for forced assimilation into the dominant culture, have fought for the right to attend public schools in their communities, schools which incorporate heritage languages and indigenous culture. Disabled students, formerly locked in institutions, have finally earned the right to attend public schools in the most inclusive settings possible and to not be excluded into sheltered classes. Immigrant students have fought for and won, in some states at least, the right to bilingual education. Undocumented students won the right to a public education only in a 1982 Supreme Court decision, but they are too often still denied financial assistance through in-state college tuition. The fight for justice and equality in our nation’s public schools is the history of citizens trying to win for their children the very equality promised in the founding documents. If American education were transformed by Betsy DeVos’s vision of universal privatized parental choice, none of these rights could be protected.
In a wonderful new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Educaton and the Assault on American Democracy, Derek Black, a professor of constitutional law, demonstrates how, over the centuries since the founding of our nation, our society has been able to expand the democratic protection of every student’s right to public education: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy. Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable… Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)
Betsy DeVos’s belief that we should “go Dutch” and adopt universal school choice for families is contrary to the promise of our American democracy.