Important Perspectives on the Danger of Betsy DeVos

As Donald Trump begins his presidency, a danger is that those of us who care about public education will give up and neglect to stand up for this institution that has defined our society. Maybe—when the Affordable Care Act and stability in the Middle East and civil rights protections and the minimum wage and nuclear nonproliferation and programs to curtail climate change are all being threatened—we’ll just capitulate. Maybe we’ll just hope dysfunction in Washington will thwart Betsy DeVos’s radical quest to steal essential funds from Title I and the already paltry federal budget line for schools to serve children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and use the money to expand vouchers and charter schools nationwide.  Because we’ve taken our public school system for granted for so long, we may simply forget to defend public education.

Our democracy is complex enough, however, to entertain debate and develop policy simultaneously on a multitude of issues, and no one program or issue is more important than any other. Those of us who care about the public schools must speak up at this juncture when the schools that serve over 90 percent of our society’s children and adolescents are at risk from the policies of this new administration.  We cannot permit the protest against Betsy DeVos and her policies to be characterized merely as a battle between the teachers unions and the Trump administration. We all need to speak up.

Here are some examples of important ways people are speaking up to defend public education and opposing the nomination and likely policies of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.

In a wonderful column over the holidays for the NY Times, Timothy Egan profiles the governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, who made sure to mention the public schools in his interview with Egan: “Every morning my wife and I drop our kids off at the same public schools that we went to.”  Egan comments: “Public, that’s key. As in public land—the great shared turf of the American West. Public health, which the governor expanded in this poor state. Simple stuff, grounded in the nontoxic populism of the past. So when the Trump administration starts taking away people’s health care, trashing public schools with a church-lady billionaire as education secretary, or colluding with a Congress that wants to offload public land, Montana can offer a resistance playbook.”

Or one can focus on Betsy DeVos herself—her record and her words. In late December, Valerie Strauss posted a summary of and a commentary on a speech delivered just last year by Betsy DeVos, a speech to a conference filled with school privatizers.  DeVos characterized our public schools as “antiquated… and frankly embarrassing” and she declared: “Government really sucks. And it doesn’t matter which party is in power.” Betsy DeVos has literally no experience in government and no experience as a public school student or a public school parent or a public school teacher. Her only connection to public education has been as a philanthropist—contributing solely to organizations and politicians who support expanding vouchers and deregulating charter schools. Peter Greene, a public school teacher in Pennsylvania and a blogger, calls DeVos on her attack on government: “You know, I’m going to give her a point for pithy phraseology. And as she notes, parties and politics are one thing that she does actually know. And she reminds me of a question I’ve always had—if your main experience of government is using money to bend politicians to your will, just how far does that lower your opinion of and respect for politicians? … But she ignores the part where government has a role to stand between citizens and People with Power who want to do harm. She also ignores, as do all free market acolytes, the Great Failing of the Free Market—it will not serve all customers, and public education MUST serve all customers.”

The Rev. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor and president of the North Carolina NAACP, lifts the moral voice. Barber always names the right for all to quality public schools as he frames his call for a third Reconstruction; Barber explains that the first Reconstruction followed the Civil War and the second was the Civil Rights Movement. Barber calls for a fusion coalition to confront the politics of backlash, and warns that we can see where a Trump administration will take us if we examine has been happening in North Carolina since 2008 when the governor and both houses of the legislature became dominated by conservative reactionaries: “Give tax breaks to corporations and to the wealthy, attack public education, deny people access to health care, attack immigrants, attack the LGBTQ community in the name of ‘religious liberty,’ strip environmental protections, and, finally, make it easier to get a gun than it is to vote.” Barber responds from his point of view in the church: “(W)e have to challenge the moral hypocrisy of the so-called Religious Right, which we should not even say because they are so wrong. They are engaging in a form of theological heresy. The greatest sin in the Bible is the sin of idolatry. The second greatest sin… whenever people worshiped themselves, was injustice toward other people. There are more than 2,000 scriptures in the Bible that deal with the issue of injustice toward women, the stranger, the poor, the sick, the hurting, and the unacceptable. You might have three about homosexuality, and not one of them trumps this scripture: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Barber calls for a new Reconstruction through fusion politics, and he reminds us that the right to public education was central to the first Reconstruction: “These fusion coalitions 150 years ago built the first public schools and in state constitutions gave all persons a constitutional right to public education—something that to this day has not been done in the federal constitution.”

The activist and University of Illinois at Chicago education professor Bill Ayers reminds us about the essential bond between public education and democracy that has been the foundation of a progressive philosophy of education as framed by John Dewey a hundred years ago. As we think about responding to Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as our next Secretary of Education, Ayers would suggest we pose this question to ourselves: “Is education a product to be sold in the market or is it human right?”  Here is Ayers’ own answer to that question: “Education for free people is powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal. Every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a work in progress and a force in motion, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force, each of us born equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience and agency, each deserving a dedicated place in the community of solidarity as well as a vital sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. Embracing that basic ethic and spirit, people recognize that the fullest development of each individual—given the tremendous range of ability and the delicious stew of race, ethnicity, points of origin, and background—is the necessary condition for the full development of the entire community, and, conversely, that the fullest development of all is essential for the full development of each. This has obvious implications for education policy.” (Demand the Impossible, p. 161)


Huge North Carolina Rally Protests Roll Back of Voting, Labor, Health, Education, and Civil Rights

Unless you live in North Carolina or follow Twitter, where pictures were posted all weekend, you may have missed that nearly 100,000 people rallied in Raleigh on Saturday to protest the policies and direction of North Carolina’s current one-party government and leadership by conservative Governor Pat McCrory, who even appointed far-right financier Art Pope as his budget director.  North Carolina is one of more than half the states that now lack checks and balances because the governor, and house and senate majorities are controlled by one party.

For much of the past year, the North Carolina NAACP, led by the prophetic Rev. William Barber, has been sponsoring Moral Monday protests at the statehouse to decry a rash of legislation that has wiped out what was thought to have been the progressive, “new south,” direction of North Carolina.

Ari Berman writing for The Nation summarizes North Carolina’s legislative record that has spurred the protests:  “Since taking over the legislature in 2010 and the governor’s mansion in 2012, controlling state government for the first time in over a century, North Carolina Republicans eliminated the earned-income tax credit for 900,000 North Carolinians; refused Medicaid coverage for 500,000; ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; slashed taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent; axed public financing of judicial races; prohibited death row inmates from challenging racially discriminatory verdicts; passed one of the country’s most draconian anti-choice laws; and enacted the country’s worst voter suppression law, which mandates strict voter ID, cuts early voting and eliminates same-day registration, among other things.”

The organizers describe Saturday’s rally as the kick-off for weekly protests leading to the November election when members of the legislature will be on the ballot.  The protestors, multi-racial and from all corners of North Carolina, have set five priorities: pro-labor, anti-poverty policies; well funded, quality public education; health care access for all North Carolinians; protection of the rights of all in the criminal justice system; and the protection and expansion of voting rights.

Rev. Barber’s rallying cry is positive: “We’ve come too far to go back now.”

This blog has covered Rev. Barber and North Carolina’s Moral Mondays here,  and here, and the political activities of Art Pope here.  The New Yorker magazine profiled Art Pope here.

Watch Keynote Address by Rev. William Barber, North Carolina NAACP

Here is a link to a video, just posted, of Rev. William Barber’s prophetic keynote address delivered at an  early October collaborative conference of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, the National Education Association, Communities for Education Reform and many of their allies. The Rev. Dr. William Barber, a Disciples of Christ pastor and president of the North Carolina NAACP, has been leading Moral Mondays in Raleigh throughout this year to protest the regressive policies of the North Carolina legislature.

In the October keynote, Barber declares: “When we stand together, our diversity is our strength that can help this nation move closer to what our founding documents say on paper.” Noting that today’s political battle is one of “extremism vs. those who believe in the Constitution,” Barber challenges the crowd: “We are in a soul-changing moment as a nation.” “There’s been too much progress in America for us to go back now!”

At the October conference the two teachers unions and their community and civil rights allies launched a joint collaboration around a set of Principles That Unite Us.  Your organization can still endorse the the principles in solidarity with the sponsoring organizations by contacting Eric Zachary at the American Federation of Teachers:

Teachers Unions and Their Allies Proclaim Core Value of Public Education

Tonight 400 members of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, Communities for Education Reform and allies of these organizations joined AFT’s Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference in Los Angeles where the sponsors released a new set of principles on which they have agreed.  When AFT and NEA along with allied organizations agree on joint principles, it is an indication of deep concern and broad consensus.  There are well over 3 million public school teachers in the United States, the vast majority of whom belong to one of the unions.

Event keynoter, the Rev. William Barber, the prophetic leader of North Carolina’s NAACP, declared: “When we stand together, our diversity is our strength that can help this nation move closer to what our founding documents say on paper.” Noting that today’s political battle is one of “extremism vs. those who believe in the Constitution,” Barber challenged Friday night’s crowd: “We are in a soul-changing moment as a nation.” “There’s been too much progress in America for us to go back now!”

For 20 weeks, Rev. Barber has been leading “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina. Marchers have been protesting North Carolina legislative actions this year that have eliminated the earned-income tax credit for 900,000; cut Medicaid coverage for 500,000; ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 in a state with the country’s fifth-highest jobless rate; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; and slashed taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent.

Endorsed by AFT, NEA and allies, The Principles That Unite Us, is a statement of seven primary values that address what is happening due to federal incentives for states to impose punitive school reform in the context of austerity budgeting across many states: closing schools, rating teachers according to students’ test scores, and privatizing schools—all policies that target the poorest communities.

  • Public schools are public institutions, while, “The corporate model of school reform seeks to turn public schools over to private managers and encourages competition…”
  • Voices of teachers administrators, school staff, students, parents and community members matter.
  • Schools are community institutions that should help coordinate services for students and families to address poverty and other challenges children bring with them to school.
  • Assessments are critical to help teachers guide lesson planning, but are “misused when teachers are fired, schools are closed and students are penalized based on a single set of scores.”
  • “Teaching is a career, not a temporary stop on the way to one.”
  • Schools should be welcoming and inclusive.  Schools must not push out vulnerable students or treat parents as intruders.
  • Schools must be fully funded.  “We have not come far enough.  Today our schools remain segregated and unequal. When we short-change some students, we short-change our nation as a whole”

And from the introduction that frames the principles:  “We believe that the only way to give every child the opportunity to pursue a rich and productive life both individually and as a member of society is through a system of publicly funded, equitable and democratically controlled public schools… Our interest is in public schools that serve all children.  We need schools that are rooted in communities, that provide a rich and equitable academic experience and model democratic practices.  We want schools where those closest to the classroom share in decision-and policy-making at all levels.  We need schools where students feel safe, nurtured and empowered to become productive adults—that provide an alternative to the prison pipeline that too many of our children are caught in.  We believe that the only way to achieve these schools is by strengthening the institution of pubic education.”