Billionaire Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, is a free-market fundamentalist with zero experience in the so-called “dead end” field that she purports to transform.
DeVos is openly and adamantly opposed to the concept of a socially funded and democratically controlled school system whose mission is to provide universal access to a high-quality education for all students.
In other words, she is antagonistic to the idea of public education itself, which she misleadingly describes as a monopoly in need of opening up.
The problem with this characterization is that education is not a business nor a market but rather a non-commodified public good. Yet, according to DeVos, “we must open up the education industry — and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry — we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators.”
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For DeVos and her supporters, the “education industry” should operate according to the principles of market competition. This means that contending schools-cum-businesses should fight against each other to attract parents-cum-customers who are supposedly given a free rein to choose the best route for their children from among a set of options that includes public schools, private schools and publicly funded but privately run and occasionally for-profit charter schools, as well as online education.
Since not all households can afford private-school tuition, DeVos advocates for the allocation of vouchers that can be used by low-income shoppers. Allegedly, this is how families without means will get access to a world-class education. Actually, this is how public money comes to line the pockets of private-equity CEOs and hedge-fund managers who drool over the potential returns on investment in the K-12 system.
DeVos’s hostility to public education should be sufficient grounds for her disqualification, but if further proof that she is unfit for the post is necessary, consider that her antipathy toward any amount of oversight is so strong that she and her family recently spearheaded an effort to kill bipartisan legislation in Detroit because she opposed a provision that would place constraints on the operators of failing charters.
For DeVos, the only necessary and acceptable regulatory mechanism is voting with one’s feet. Never mind the fact that 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are operated by for-profit education-management organizations, a far higher percentage than in any other state.
Ignore also widespread reports that some charter schools exclude students with special needs in an attempt to inflate standardized-testing scores. What suffers in the midst of discourse about “school choice” is attention to a more fundamental freedom and right that should exist in any society that calls itself democratic: egalitarian access to excellent public schools.
That access must include not only those who live in relatively affluent areas but also the largely minority residents of economically deprived places whose understandable frustration with the shortcomings of public schools is currently being exploited by corporate education reformers and venture capitalists.
Instead of policymakers who encourage the destabilization of public education in order to preemptively justify its takeover by private, profit-seeking interests, we need to focus on improving existing public schools.
The inadequate performance of public schools can be traced overwhelmingly to external factors, like intensifying inequality and a growing proportion of impoverished students, rather than to internal deficiencies.
Funneling public money toward non-public competitors will benefit a handful of profiteers, but it will adversely affect the learning and working conditions of millions of students and teachers.
Readers ought to call Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul before the Tuesday, Jan. 17 confirmation hearing to urge them to oppose DeVos.
Kenny Stancil of Lexington is a masters student in secondary social studies education at the University of Kentucky.