This article was originally published on Banter M, our digital magazine for members.
Ok, the headline for this article is somewhat misleading. I don't support Betsy Devos's philosophy on eduction, or her ludicrous (and virtually non-existent) views on public schooling in America.
But I do support her confirmation as education secretary in Donald Trump's administration for one very good reason, as I shall attempt to explain.
Devos inherited billions from her family, never went to public school, hasn't sent her children to public school, and couldn't answer rudimentary questions about how America's school system works or what she proposes to do to fix them during her widely publicized confirmation hearing. Under intense scrutiny, it became abundantly clear that Devos had absolutely no qualifications for the position whatsoever, and would be incapable of managing America's dysfunctional schooling system that is in dire need of funding and reform. Devos is a free market ideologue who has dedicated much of her working life to destroying public education in favor of a voucher system for private schools, funding unaccountable charter schools, and using tax money to pay for extreme Christian education programs. Her solution to America's failing public education system is not to reform it, but to destroy it completely -- a long held objective of the Republican Party that has been at war with public schooling for decades.
This war on public education has a very explicit purpose, and that is to solidify a tiered education system that denies poor and minority citizens an equal playing field. Study after study after study has shown that good public schools outperform charter schools, and there is zero evidence that voucher systems that subsidize private education provide any tangible benefits to low income students. As Politico reported:
In New Orleans, voucher students who struggle academically haven’t advanced to grade-level work any faster over the past two years than students in the public schools, many of which are rated D or F, state data show.
And across Louisiana, many of the most popular private schools for voucher students posted miserable scores in math, reading, science and social studies this spring, with fewer than half their voucher students achieving even basic proficiency and fewer than 2 percent demonstrating mastery. Seven schools did so badly, state Superintendent John White barred them from accepting new voucher students — though the state agreed to keep paying tuition for the more than 200 voucher students already enrolled, if they chose to stay.
As is always the case, ideology trumps reality, and Republicans remain insistent that smashing public eduction and disempowering teachers is the only way to reform education in America. Public school teachers are routinely scapegoated by the right and teacher unions that exist to protect their fragile benefits blamed for all of the major problems with education. While there are no doubt problems with unions, chronic underfunding and the constant politicization of education has a much worse effect on public schools that are bursting at the seams with far too many students.
Republicans have cashed in on the dysfunction by doing what they always do -- attacking the most vulnerable people in society in order to further their ideological devotion to extreme free market capitalism. When the banks failed after Wall St was deregulated in the 90's and early 2000's, Republicans found a way to blame the government for over regulating the industry and minorities for taking out mortgages they couldn't afford (even though those loans were not responsible for the crash). When New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the GOP rammed through market reforms to "increase investment", which of course benefited the rich at the expense of those hit hardest by the floods (ie. the poor).
The eduction problem in America is no different, and the GOP's inability to come up with a solution that doesn't involve tax cuts and gutting regulation means that they are going to make the problem much, much worse.
But this time, it could be a good thing. Betsy Devos is so ideologically opposed to public education that her mere presence in the Trump administration is going to provoke a backlash the likes of which America has never seen before. I have spoken to several public school teachers who all told me there is huge resentment towards Devos, and a very strong likelihood of mass, coordinated action on behalf of teachers all over the country. As soon as Devos begins to push for the so-called reforms she has spent a lifetime advocating for, teachers and unions are going to kick into action, and they will fight hard to combat her attempts to destroy them.
We can also expect to see parents take to the streets to oppose the privatization reforms, and action from the state level that will make Trump and Devos's life a complete misery. There is huge and growing appetite for a fight, and every reform they push through will be met with a reaction equally as severe.
Ultimately, Devos is likely to quit once she feels the full force of the resistance. She isn't qualified to do the job anyway, and the public simply needs to remind her of it on a daily basis. And once Devos goes, Trump will think very hard about putting forward someone who wants to destroy public education. Coupled with an energized and activated teacher and parent driven movement, public education in America might just get the real reforms it so desperately needs.
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