Are you tired of hearing Betsy DeVos repeat her one idea about education—that parents should have the right to choose their children’s school? Why does she not branch out a little bit at least and consider the issues that are supposed to be within the purview of the U.S. Department of Education, the agency of which she is now in charge? Why does she never seem really to appreciate the work of public school teachers in the schools she visits? (To read about Betsy DeVos’s Senate testimony on Tuesday about her department’s federal budget proposal, read Valerie Strauss’s report.)
Sitting on my desk are copies of two recent reflections on Betsy DeVos’s beliefs and how her ideas shape her leadership.
First Peter Greene, the Pennsylvania school teacher and blogger, critiques a statement from the American Federation for Children (AFC), the advocacy organization that Betsy DeVos founded and whose board she chaired until she became our U.S. Secretary of Education. Greene is bothered by this statement from AFC, a declaration that sounds exactly like Betsy DeVos: “It is school choice—directly empowering parents to choose the best educational environment for their child—that is the most democratic of ideas.”
Green responds: “Nope, nope, nope, nopity nope. There are arguments to be made for parent choice, but ‘it’s the essence of democracy’ is not one of them… Democracy is not, ‘My fellow taxpayers have to pay for whatever I decide on my own that I want.’… It is the taxpayers’ money, and the taxpayers have given it to support a system that will educate all students in the community through an institution managed by elected representatives of those taxpayers…. Democracy is about coming together as a group to discuss, debate, (hopefully) compromise, and elect folks who will decide how best to manage our resources.”
Second, Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect reflects on charter schools, economic inequality and a belief in free markets: “The billionaires, apparently, we shall always have with us—even when we decide how to run the state-funded schools where they rarely send their own kids… Indeed, we have to go back to the economic polarization of pre-New Deal America to find a time when the super-rich felt so compelled to better the lot of the poor, as they understood it. Andrew Carnegie, who grew mightily rich by building the American steel industry, famously established libraries in thousands of cities and towns. Though, unlike today’s charter backers, he wasn’t draining off funds that could go to public libraries in the process. What Carnegie and today’s pro-charter rich have in common is a belief in individual betterment…. They also share a fierce opposition to collective betterment, manifested in their respective battles against unions and, in many cases, against governmentally established standards and services. Living in separate eras when the middle class was—and is—embattled and the gap between rich and poor was—and is—immense, billionaires have largely shunned the fights that might truly narrow that gap: raising the minimum wage, making public colleges and universities free, funding sufficient public investment to create genuine full employment…. As the billionaires see it, it’s the lack of skills, not the dysfunctions of the larger economic system that… is the cause of our national woes. Pure of heart though some of them may be, the charter billionaires have settled on a diagnosis, and a cure, that focuses on the deficiencies of the system’s victims, not the system itself. How very comforting for them.”
Unrelated as their statements at first appear, both Greene and Meyerson are condemning the kind of libertarian education philosophy embraced by Betsy DeVos. Libertarianism situates individuals as competitors in a market-driven world and rewards persistent and determined strivers. Greene castigates the libertarian idea that parental choice is the essence of democracy, because he knows that the mass of private parental choices will not, as libertarians assume, come to define what’s good for all of us. Likewise Meyerson attacks libertarian assumptions as he contrasts the idea that marketplace school choice will be the path for individual betterment to the theory that public policy should compensate for the deficiencies and excesses of an alarmingly unequal market economy.
That libertarian Betsy DeVos seems out of place leading a government bureaucracy should not be surprising; after all she is not an educator and she has called government-operated schools “a dead end” She married into Amway, the family business that most perfectly defines the libertarian idea of the entrepreneurship of the individual. The very name of the company, “Amway”—where individuals contract to sell products door-to-door and recruit other individual sales associates—is short for “the American Way.”
Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson reject the market-driven, libertarian direction that now pervades DeVos’s Department of Education. In their 2016 book, American Amnesia, they make the case for government as an absolutely necessary balance for markets in a mixed economy: “The mixed economy is a social institution, a human solution to human problems. Private capitalism and public coercion each predated modern prosperity. Governments were involved in the market long before the mixed economy. What made the difference was the marriage of large-scale profit-seeking activity, active democratic governance, and a deepened understanding of how markets work (and where they work poorly)” (American Amnesia, p. 7)
Hacker and Pierson explain: “That markets fall short under certain conditions has been known for at least two centuries… Adam Smith wrote enthusiastically about the ‘invisible hand’ of market allocation. Yet he also identified many cases where rational actors pursuing their own self-interest produced bad outcomes: underinvestment in education, financial instability, insufficient infrastructure, unchecked monopolies. Economists have been building on these insights ever since to explain when and why markets stumble and how the visible hand of government can make the invisible hand more effective. The visible hand is needed, for example, to provide key collective goods that markets won’t…. reduce negative spillover costs that parties to market exchanges don’t bear fully…. encourage positive spillover benefits that such parties don’t take fully into account…. regulate the market to protect consumers and investors…. provide or require certain insurance protections…. and soften the business cycle and reduce the risk of financial crises.” (American Amnesia, p. 4-5)
So how does all this help explain our dilemma today as we live with a government-despising libertarian as the leader of our government’s Department of Education?
We’ll start briefly with Hacker and Pierson, who speak specifically to education: “(M)ass schooling has never occurred in the absence of government leadership. The most fundamental reason is that education is not merely a private investment but also a social investment: It improves overall economic (and civic) outcomes at least as much as it benefits individuals. Ultimately, only the public sector has the incentive… and the means… to make that investment happen… Mass education mobilizes an enormous amount of untapped human talent into the economy; the benefits accrue not only to those who go to school but to society as a whole.”(American Amnesia, p. 65)
Then there is the matter of the role of government to protect civil rights. In hearings before Congress Betsy DeVos has persistently (and frustratingly) skirted questions about the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Education for protecting students’ civil rights. DeVos almost always responds to such questions with a defense of parents’ personal right to choose a school for their children. She doggedly explains that if things are not going well at school, parents should have the right to choose another school. Pauline Lipman, a Chicago education theorist, responded several years ago to what she calls the “neoliberal” (libertarian) thinking of the school privatizers promoting the rapid expansion of charter schools in Chicago. Lipman does not idealize the public schools. In fact she believes that privatization initiatives like Arne Duncan’s Renaissance 2010 were a response to the poorly funded, under-staffed and overwhelmed neighborhood public schools. But privatization has not, she believes, addressed the needs of Chicago’s children: “The Keynesian welfare state framed people as citizens with certain civil rights and the state as responsible for a minimal level of social well-being. Although the welfare state was deeply exclusionary, there were grounds to collectively fight to extend civil rights. Claims could legitimately be made on the state. In the neoliberal social imaginary, rather than ‘citizens’ with rights, we are consumers of services People are ’empowered’ by taking advantage of opportunities in the market, such as school choice…. One improves one’s life situation by becoming an ‘entrepreneur of oneself’….” (The New Political Economy of Urban Education, p. 11)
The late Benjamin Barber reminds us, however, that as consumers of services, we lack the rights of democratic citizens who can, at least in theory, choose representatives with the power to protect our interests. With privatization, “We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.” (Consumed, p. 139) In Chicago and Detroit, a primary source of inequality has been that charter operators themselves, without public oversight, have been permitted to choose the neighborhoods in which they have sited their schools—without any consideration of the overabundance of schools in some neighborhoods and the shortage of schools in other neighborhoods.
Tony Judt, the late British historian, reminds us that one of the failures of libertarian privatization is that the public seems always to have to keep on subsidizing the services which have been privatized: “What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatization is inefficient. Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss: whether they were railway companies, coal mines, postal services, or energy utilities, they cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue.” (Ill Fares the Land, p 109) If DeVos is able to lead Congress to expand the privatization of education, Congress, state legislatures and local property taxpayers will commence sending more public funds to pay tuition at religious schools whose students would likely never have attended public schools in the first place. And taxpayers will pay for the outrageous profits for the owners and operators of behemoth online virtual schools like K-12,Inc.
How can Betsy DeVos be confident that parents are well enough informed to make good school choices for their children? Here are Hacker and Pierson worrying about uneven access to information: “Even more widespread are issues related to consumer myopia, when consumers know too little or focus on the wrong things or don’t look far enough into the future to make wise choices… The emerging field of ‘behavioral economics’ incorporates insights from psychologists about the many ways in which actual human decision making falls short—way short—of the traditional economics assumption of perfect information, perfectly processed.” (American Amnesia, p. 81) In huge charter school marketplaces like New Orleans and Detroit, a primary criticism has been poor information made available to parents about the array of schools.
Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine worry that privatization, in the form of rapid growth of charter schools, has worsened inequality in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities. The best charters may be a lifeboat for a few children, but only for a very few: “The rationing of charter education has resulted in an increasing clamor for exit, an intensifying allure of all things private, and the migration of public resources out of neighborhood schools in the poorest areas. This intensifying disinvestment is accompanied by ever more symbolic forms of private education reform that substitute modest investments in a small number of communities and schools for needed levels of targeted investment. Clearly the conditions necessary to reinvent learning and instruction… for a majority of poor students of color cannot be achieved within this intellectually arid and fiscally degraded reform box. The bottom line is that if we are serious about education reform, it will require that the 95% of students not affected by charter schooling be paid equal attention… 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, p 87)
None of this alleviates our dilemma posed by the appointment of a libertarian who despises government as the leader of our government’s education department. It is helpful, however, to keep in mind all of this thinking from the critics of libertarian education theory. At least it explains why many of us are so frustrated and so angry.
Public education is among our society’s largest and most pervasive civic institutions. It is, therefore, also helpful to keep in mind a definition of institutional justice from an ethicist, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman: “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.” Justice in education must be systemic; it cannot be achieved through competition in a privatized education marketplace that produces losers as well as winners.