Ed Sec wanted, no experience required

January 19, 2017

New York City educator and author Brian Jones digs up the dirt on the billionaire chosen for education secretary, in the latest chapter of Tales from the Trump Swamp.

THE WOMAN who Donald Trump is putting in charge of the nation's public schools didn't attend public schools, didn't send her children to public schools, and has never worked in a public school.

Trump has chosen Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress, anti-gay bigot and right-wing political donor, to be Secretary of Education. The only connection DeVos has had to education is using her wealth to destroy public schools and replace them with a competitive free-market system of charter schools and vouchers.

In a prepared statement for her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, DeVos made it clear that she knows nothing about teaching and learning--and that she is banking on the idea of the mechanism of "choice" alone to improve the nation's schools. Asked during the hearing about the debate between using "proficiency" or "growth" measurements to evaluate students and teachers, DeVos admitted she did not understand the question.

Devoid of any concept about what a great school might look like on the inside, she and those like her cling to the concept that empowering parents to leave "failing" schools means their children will all find themselves in schools that meet their needs.

Betsy Devos, Trump's nominee for Education Secretary, fields questions during her Senate confirmation hearing
Betsy Devos, Trump's nominee for Education Secretary, fields questions during her Senate confirmation hearing

In her home state of Michigan, this game of student shuffling hasn't worked out so well.

DeVos has spent millions of dollars lobbying to reduce oversight and accountability for the state's for-profit charter schools, but in 2014, the Detroit Free Press reported that $1 billion in spending on charter schools left children in the state of Michigan with little to show for it academically--though plenty of education "reformers" had taken advantage of the deregulated, Wild West-like environment to line their pockets.

DeVos went further, arguing that Michigan's public schools should be closed entirely and replaced by voucher-supported schools. She spent more millions of dollars to put the question on the ballot. The voters of Michigan, however, disagreed--their choice was to reject several similar ballot measures repeatedly--the latest defeated by a margin of 2 to 1.

There's more. DeVos comes from a family that has, for decades, funded Christian Right causes. They supported the Focus on the Family organization, which advocates "conversion therapy" for gay people. Her commitment to education privatization stems from her belief, as she said in an interview, that removing public schools clears the way for greater religious instruction. She sees her role in education as a way to "advance God's kingdom."

DeVos knows her agenda is unpopular, which is why, during the confirmation hearing, instead of defending it openly, she repeatedly dodged questions about privatization or the use of public funds for religious education. When Sen. Bernie Sanders asked her about making public higher education free, she responded, "That's an interesting idea"--and then added, "Nothing is free."

IT'S EASY to see the danger that Betsy DeVos' agenda represents. But it's an agenda that isn't entirely unique to the Republicans or the Christian Right.

DeVos is only an extreme representative of what has been a bipartisan consensus in education for decades now. Thus, in a statement at DeVos' confirmation hearing, GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander recounted how Democratic and Republican administrations--from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama--have supported charter schools and school choice.

We should never forget that when many thought President Obama would appoint an educator such as Linda Darling-Hammond to the post of Education Secretary, he instead elevated someone a little like DeVos: from the business world, with no education credentials, but with experience promoting the privatization of schools--Arne Duncan.

We should never forget that there has been a war on teachers and their unions under a liberal Democratic administration for the past eight years. In 2010, Obama praised the firing of all 93 teachers from a supposedly "failing" school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. When 7,000 teachers were fired following the Katrina disaster in Louisiana, Duncan declared: "I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina."

The Democratic Party is steeped in the push for education privatization and cozy with its billionaire backers. Hillary Clinton was on the board of Walmart, which is owned by the Walton family, one of the biggest funders of the education privatization movement. Obama and Duncan filled their Department of Education with people from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The new darling of the Democratic Party, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, served with Betsy DeVos on the board of the Alliance for School Choice.

Worse, it was the liberal leadership of the Democratic Party who perfected the art of dressing up privatization in the robes of the civil rights movement.

The release of the documentary Waiting for "Superman"--which blamed teacher unions for protecting bad teachers and ruining public education--was hailed by Arne Duncan as a "Rosa Parks moment" for education. Republicans agree. During DeVos' confirmation hearing, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul praised Superman as a film that answers the criticisms of charter schools and vouchers.

More recently, DeRay McKesson, a former teacher and school administrator, was funded and promoted by Teach for America to become one of the most recognizable personalities in the movement against police violence--enhancing the racial justice credentials of an organization committed to corporate "reform."

If Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos say that union busting and school competition is in the best interest of America's poorest and most oppressed students, they will merely be sharpening a sword handed to them by liberals and the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Don't count on the Democrats to defend and improve our schools--or even try very hard to stop DeVos. As it did in the Obama years, that work will fall to us: parents, teachers, students and everyone who cares about public education.

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