By now you know that Trump selected Betsy DeVos, a billionaire education activist, to become the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos won’t be the first secretary of education to ascend to the position without any experience in education whatsoever (well, you know, except for that activism), and she won’t even be the first to have gone out of her way to make sure that none of her own children were tainted by the stain of having had to attend public schools. But she will be the first billionaire activist to ever serve as secretary of education! The superlatives keep rolling in for Trump’s swamp-draining new government.
You probably also know what DeVos stands for: she has often been described in the stories written since Trump made the announcement as a “passionate” advocate for school choice. For many of us, our passion for a particular cause is measured in tweets and yard signs and Facebook posts; for DeVos, it’s measured in millions of dollars spent to influence legislators and shape public opinion to ensure that her ideological commitments become instituted as policy. DeVos—who, again, never attended public schools and whose children never did either—is willing to spend her fortune to help us out because she is absolutely certain of one thing. It is that her brand of school reform will improve our schools.
But for whom? That’s a hard question to answer. Unfortunately, by any objective measure her investment hasn’t been a good one. See, DeVos has been heavily involved in the “reform” of Detroit’s chronically troubled public schools and the results have been less than impressive. Not that that has done anything to dampen the spirits of school choice advocates. They’re certain deliverance is just around the corner. They swear that school choice will engender the kind of competition that will make all schools better.
I find it hard to believe that that’s true, but here we are. That we have even come this far says much about the current state of our national discussion about education: it is undeniable that the “reform” narrative of the past forty years or so has been stunningly effective at reshaping our ideas about education and what it’s for. That narrative is increasingly dependent on the notion that public schools are failing because they are public, but this assumption is only believable if the rationale for public education is focused narrowly on the relationship between schools and the larger economy—or if it is being used in service of political ends that only a minority of Americans actually seem to want.
In fact, we’re the victims of a classic bait-and-switch: technological change has resulted in seismic shifts in the economy, and activists have taken advantage of that to convince us that the economy changed because schools failed us, not because we’re living in one of the most significant periods of technological change in the history of the world and struggling to catch up. They’ve taken advantage of our gullibility to push a reactionary menu of zombie ideas designed to slow the pace of change to a speed that’s more to their liking. Why? Because keeping things the way they are makes it more likely that people who already have advantages in society will get to keep them. That’s why.
Reform advocates have managed to accomplish what they’ve accomplished partly by disguising their true intentions (most will go to great lengths to assure us that school choice will make public schools better even if there is no evidence to support such a claim), and partly with the help of their opponents. That’s right: we’ve helped them too. There are excellent charter schools out there, no doubt about it, but it seems increasingly likely that charters are the Trojan horse that will make vouchers possible. It gives me no pleasure to say it, but I’m afraid it might be true. If it is, public schools will truly be in trouble.
They’ll be in trouble not because charter schools are a bad idea or even because choice is inherently bad either. Conservatives are about to win the argument partly because they won an election, but they’re also about to win because no powerful rationale for choice as a way of advancing equity has ever been embraced by opponents of the conservative agenda. Public school advocates could have, for example, embraced common standards as a way of ensuring more equitable school experiences for all, and as a launching point for then encouraging creativity and innovation in schools of choice that met the unique needs of individual families. Instead many joined conservatives to denounce Common Core as a billionaire boondoggle without recognizing how the standards could advance goals they held dear.
And that brings us to where we are now. The (un-)intended consequences of Trump’s plan to distribute $20 billion in federal funds to support choice (note: that’s almost exactly half of all the money the federal government spends on K-12 education right now) are mind-numbing to consider, and will, if implemented, have a definite negative impact on many of the people who voted for him. I’m thinking especially here of teachers in small towns and rural areas. What happens when the only public elementary school in your community sees half its student population decamp for the local Christian heritage academy? Where will the school board turn for money for modest salary increases or to hire new teachers when federal funds have dried up and local taxpayers have grown even more tired of making up the shortfall? How long will it take before staff are laid off because of shrinking student populations? How will school leaders decide whom to lay off when tenure has been systematically weakened for all teachers?
There are other reasons to be concerned. What happens when the unregulated for-profit “charter management organization” leaves your city or town abruptly in search of greener pastures? What happens when the high-flying local high school starts turning students away because of overcrowding, and we later find out that it is doing so by systematically excluding students of a particular race or ethnicity? What are the implications of all of this for our experiment democracy? I can tell you this: I don’t think any of it would bring us closer together.
In fact, what all of this would do is let people sink further into spaces that separate them from others, segregated by race, income, and cultural background. That might be an effective way to maintain power in the face of popular will, but it’s not a great way to sustain a democracy.
So should public school advocates be worried about what DeVos means for public education? You bet they should. In fact, I’d go so far as to call this an existential crisis. If Trump is successful at distributing this $20 billion in public money for school choice, and if he and DeVos can convince even a handful of states to match or exceed those funds, he will have achieved a policy objective that has made conservative mouths water for decades. This plan is a voucher pig wearing school choice lipstick. It’s “Title I portability” on steroids. And who’s to stop him? Certainly not Republicans in Congress. They have no interest in protecting the “government school monopoly” conservatives often rail against. This is what they’ve been dreaming about, and it’s about to happen. That none of them would have thought it possible three weeks ago makes it all the more stunning.
And that’s what worries me most. If the winners here were caught flat-footed, you can be sure the losers were too. People who dismiss the appointment of Betsy DeVos as just another political appointment of someone to a position without the ability to influence schools had better think again. Those who say we should wait and see and give her a chance to do her job might want to reconsider. The threat here is very real. We’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to fight it.