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.