Last week the New Yorker explored the plan to break public schools that is laid bare by Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education. I’ll go along and focus on public education and the threat of choice for the sake of choice. But take heed: as the author points out, putting an enemy of public ed at the head of the education department is an example of the Trumpian implementation of the X-antiX formula. Many of the rest of his cabinet picks, including the recent pick for OMB fit the formula for a given agency X, choose antiX to
Among the points that can be made in favor of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s billionaire nominee for the position of Secretary of Education, are the following: She has no known ties to President Vladimir Putin, unlike Trump’s nominee to head the State Department, Rex Tillerson, who was decorated with Russia’s Order of Friendship medal a few years ago. She hasn’t demonstrated any outward propensity for propagating dark, radical-right-leaning conspiracy theories, unlike Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s designated national-security adviser. She has not actively called for the dismantling of the department she is slated to head, as have Rick Perry, Trump’s nominee for Energy Secretary, and Scott Pruitt, the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
That the absence of such characteristics should bear noting only underlines the dystopian scope of Trump’s quest to complete his cabinet of cronies. On the other hand, DeVos has never taught in a public school, nor administered one, nor sent her children to one. She is a graduate of Holland Christian High School, a private school in her home town of Holland, Michigan, which characterizes its mission thus: “to equip minds and nurture hearts to transform the world for Jesus Christ.”
To bring this down to earth, substitute “50 million school children” for “world” and you have essential DeVos.
How might DeVos seek to transform the educational landscape of the United States in her position at the head of a department that has a role in overseeing the schooling of more than fifty million American children? As it happens, she does have a long track record in the field. Since the early nineteen-nineties, she and her husband, Dick DeVos, have been very active in supporting the charter-school movement. They worked to pass Michigan’s first charter-school bill, in 1993, which opened the door in their state for public money to be funnelled to quasi-independent educational institutions, sometimes targeted toward specific demographic groups, which operate outside of the strictures that govern more traditional public schools. …
As a board member of Children First America and the American Education Reform Council, and later as the chair of the American Federation for Children, DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy Magazine, DeVos expressed her ultimate goals in education reform, which she said she saw encompassing not just charter schools and voucher programs but also homeschooling and virtual education: “That all parents, regardless of their zip code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children. And that all students have had the best opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.”
So how well does all that work?
… How have such DeVos-sponsored initiatives played out thus far in her home state? Earlier this year, the Detroit Free Press published the results of a yearlong investigation into the state’s two-decade-long charter-school initiative—one of the least regulated in the country. Almost two-thirds of the state’s charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities. This lack of transparency has not translated into stellar academic results: student standardized-test scores at charter schools, the paper found, were no more than comparable with those at traditional public schools. And, despite the rhetoric of “choice,” lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while the parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system. Even Tom Watkins, the state’s former education superintendent, who favors charter schools, told the newspaper, “In a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.”
As the Republican nominee, Trump campaigned on a platform of educational reform, proposing to assign twenty billion dollars of federal funds to a block grant aimed at opening up school choice. The assumption is that productive competition between schools will result. “Competition always does it,” Trump said in September, as if he were speaking about air-conditioner factories rather than academic institutions. “The weak fall out and the strong get better. It is an amazing thing.”
… through her past actions, and her previously published statements, it is clear that DeVos, like the President-elect who has chosen her, is comfortable applying the logic of the marketplace to schoolyard precincts. She has repeatedly questioned the value of those very precincts’ physical existence: in the Philanthropy interview, DeVos remarked that, “in the Internet age, the tendency to equate ‘education’ with ‘specific school buildings’ is going to be greatly diminished.”
Scriber actually agrees with the latter quote. The internet is a powerful transformative agent. Consider as one example, the Kahn Academy, featured in this 2011 Wired article, How Khan Academy is changing the rules of education. However, this melding of technology and education is an entirely separate set of issues from DeVos’ push for public funding of private (including religious) schools.
The New Yorker author, Rebecca Mead, sums up:
Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment. If, in recent years, a principal focus of federal educational policy has been upon academic standards in public education—how to measure success, and what to do with the results—DeVos’s nomination suggests that in a Trump Administration the more fundamental premises that underlie our institutions of public education will be brought into question. In one interview, recently highlighted by Diane Ravitch on her blog, DeVos spoke in favor of “charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination, or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.” A preëmptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.
Trump himself, I point out, is an example of the X-antiX formula. He will shortly be appointed by the American people to head a government much of which he despises and intends to diminish.