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Betsy DeVos, confirmed as our next education secretary in overtime thanks to a clutch drive by Tom Brady...oops...I mean tiebreaking vote from Vice President Pence bodes nothing well for those of us who care about public education at any level.

Indeed, her mission seems not to be to support and improve public education but to use the power of the federal government to dismantle public education and farm out the parts to various private entities. With DeVos as secretary and Jerry Fallwell Jr. the head of as-yet-to-be-defined task force on higher education, we have two ideologues who worship the twin gods of a Christian deity and the “free market.”

Hold on to your wallets, parents and students.

Let’s not pretend, however, that DeVos is entirely aberrant in the world of education, a bizarre plague visited upon us by our rogue president. A President JEB! would’ve made the same appointment. Dedicated education “reformer” Campbell Brown endorsed DeVos. In fact, I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that if President JEB! was in office, Secretary DeVos wouldn’t have been the first cabinet nominee in the modern age to need a vice presidential tiebreaker and would’ve passed easily, taking even a couple of Democrats for her side. For one, JEB!’s transition people would’ve had her much better prepared for her Senate hearings. For two, Democrats would’ve been far less primed for resistance than under a Trump presidency. For three, sand off some of the god stuff and you'll find a number of Democrats broadly in line with DeVos' philosophy.

In those hearings, Betsy DeVos displayed precious little knowledge of education in general – seemingly not knowing the difference between growth and proficiency – and even less concern over public education, where her experience seems to extend no further than perhaps driving past some public schools.

But as Mark Bauerlein argues in his typical thick-headed fashion that wishes away complexity to find a small nugget of truth that makes sense to ideologues who hate public institutions, “The job of the Education Secretary isn’t to defend public schools. It’s to help kids learn.” 

The loss of faith in the efficacy of public schools appears bipartisan to me. In 2011, original Obama administration Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that 82% of America’s schools were “failing” under No Child Left Behind. The necessity of radical reform was a constant drumbeat of both Obama terms. In higher ed, allegedly liberal think tanks like New America were advocating for an opening up for America's higher education markets so we could experience the flourishing of the "University of Everywhere" and no longer be tethered to sclerotic and hidebound public institutions.

The idea that DeVos is entirely inexperienced when it comes to education is also incorrect. She has significant experience with education as a plutocrat who uses her billions to influence educational policy, most notably in Detroit, in her home state of Michigan, where her preferred policies of giving unfettered access to public monies for private charters have proven to be a nearly unmitigated disaster

This makes her not so different than liberals’ favorite plutocrat, Bill Gates who plowed far more into facilitating corporate encroachment into public education via the development and adoption of the Common Core State Standards than Betsy DeVos could ever dream of. Sure, DeVos got her hands on a large urban school district, but Gates wrapped his arms around the entire country.

Let’s not pretend to be offended by rich people who don’t know what they’re doing meddling in education all of the sudden.[1] 

In her way, DeVos is merely the Republican version of President Obama’s first Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. Like DeVos, Duncan was schooled exclusively in private institutions, first the University of Chicago Lab Schools, and then Harvard. Duncan has no classroom experience, and instead spent his entire career as the favored bureaucrat of rich and powerful people like his initial patron, childhood friend John W. Rogers Jr., who gave Duncan his start at director of a tutoring non-profit, which would would eventually morph into a charter school. Sure Duncan was some kind of educational manager, but what did he truly know about the work of schools?

For Duncan, and Obama, and President George W. Bush before them, that schools were failing was a given, and the route to improvement was competition. (Sound familiar?) DeVos is merely a different flavor of the same foodstuff. A particularly disgusting flavor, but very much kin to what came before.

Indeed, CCSS and Race to the Top were simply a Democratic version of the transfer of public money to private entities as consultants and ed tech fads flooded the zone, sopping up the federal grant money, promising (without evidence) to move the educational needle. Using public money to fatten private coffers was a bad idea then, just as it's a bad and wasteful idea now.

Feh. Feh on all of them, I say.

So here we are, with a President Trump and a compliant Congress who have managed to install what looks to be a nightmare at the head of our federal education policy-making entity.

It’s bad. But it shouldn’t be viewed as a sudden shock to the system. Betsy DeVos is merely the next step along what has been a largely bipartisan journey.

The bright side is that with a polarizing president and activated opposition, a true resistance to the worst proposed policies may be possible in ways that were not available during the Obama administration. As Libby Nelson writes at Vox, while DeVos can likely do real harm – most distressingly to the most vulnerable students – through the administration and enforcement mechanisms of her department, at least it will take congressional action to pass any major reforms. 

Cold comfort, I know, particularly for those who are most immediately affected.

But for the first time in a long time the stakes are clear and Democrats are forced back over the line to fight for genuine support for public education and educators.

Brace yourselves.


[1] If anyone cares to follow the link and look at the comments, you can see that I got in an extended back and forth with a commenter about the necessity of “resisting” Gates’ encroachment on education, no matter how generous or well-meaning he seemed. I wished I felt strongly enough about it at the time to figure out what genuine resistance looked like. I’m learning that lesson now.

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