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Betsy DeVos: With No Professional Experience in the Field of Education, She is an Embarrassment as US Secretary of Education. Her sole goal is to defund schools and divert the money to homeschoolers.

2020-07-13

photo by nastya_gepp courtesy of pixabya.com– chosen because it’s not her.

The administration’s pressure to open all primary and secondary schools this fall and cut off international students from colleges that don’t re-open has two purposes.  First, to score political points by making it look as if the Democrats are trying to keep schools closed for nefarious purposes.  Second, to cause chaos and disruptions in public schools that will make charter schools and home schools more attractive by comparison.  Part of the underlying motivation is to advance the administration’s goal from its opening days of spending billions of dollars to subsidize charter schools and vouchers for home-schooling parents.  Betsy DeVos is part of the plan.

Betsy DeVos sat for a TV interview the other day.  She chose this moment (Sunday, July 12) to make herself available because she has a message for the public: “open schools this fall, with in-person attendance for everyone, or we will cut off your funding.”  (That’s a paraphrase, because what she actually said was obviously a talking point that had been drilled into her by an aide.)  What she really said:

 American investment in education is a promise to students and their families. If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds, and give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.

She said this repeatedly, in response to multiple questions, without any variations or any attempt to provide substantive answers to the big questions: 1) how can you insist on sending children back to school in the middle of a pandemic without a clear plan for preventing the spread of infection?  2) what makes you think you can unilaterally cut off funding to schools that don’t comply with your demands?

She had no answers for these vexing questions.  There is no federal plan to guide schools in preventing spread of infections, from child to child and from child to teacher (or to janitors, for that matter.)  There is no funding for the extra expenses that an infection-prevention plan would entail.  There is no legal way the executive branch can cut off funding to the schools; most of the money for schools comes from local and state sources and is inaccessible to federal executive action.  What money does come from federal sources is mostly earmarked for special programs for disabled and disadvantaged children, and could not be cut off simply by executive decrees.

This is a mischaracterization of why we are taxed to support public education.  We don’t “invest” in education; we pay taxes to support teachers and schools, who in turn teach classes and provide activities that help children and teenagers learn things that we think are important to their careers and civic responsibilities.  An investment implies a contract with an expected rate of return, in money.  The returns we expect from spending money on schooling are not monetary– they are primarily an intangible benefit to society.

We could monetize the returns by calculating how  much money people would make if they didn’t go to school versus how much they will make after graduating– and then divide out how much more they will pay in taxes for their better-paying jobs– but that would miss out on the intangible benefits.  How do we calculate the monetary value of an educated populace to our society when they use their knowledge to elect good leaders, to comply with just laws, to live longer, more satisfying, and healthier lives because they understand the benefits of good diet, good hygiene, a balanced life, exercise?

In fact, the public educational system serves multiple purposes.  First, for modern families, it is a place to put children while their parents are working– to prevent them from being left alone during the day (in the past, children not in school were employed on the family farm.)  Second, it is a way to teach children things (so many different things.)  Third, it is a place for children to play and socialize, and learn how to get along with others

Betsy DeVos was appointed to her post because she is rich, conservative, an evangelical Christian, and good-looking.  She has no relevant experience in the field of education.  Her education ended with a baccalaureate degree majoring in business economics (she might as well have majored in art or literature if she cared about education.)  She is the daughter of a billionaire who made his money in the auto parts supply business in Detroit.  Her husband is a former CEO of Amway (a “multilevel marketing organization”, or more bluntly, a successful pyramid scheme.)

She is politically active, starting with her work for the presidential campaign of Gerald Ford while she was in college.  She was chair of the Michigan Republican Party.  Her brother is Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater, a supplier of mercenaries to the US military (which became notorious after some of its men massacred 17 civilians at a highway intersection in Baghdad in 2007.)

She came to the attention of the current president because of her family’s monetary support for the Republican Party.  She openly admitted in a Roll Call op-ed in 1997 that her family was the largest single contributor to the Republican Party in Michigan, and that she was essentially buying influence.  She did not publicly support the president until after the election; the only public statement I could find was a comment from March 2016 in which she described him as an “interloper” who “does not represent the Republican Party.”  Her family did, however, spend $2.7 million on Republican candidates and PACs in the 2016 election cycle.

Just how much influence became immediately apparent when the incumbent president announced a couple of weeks after the election that she would be nominated to the Secretary of Education post.  This is despite the fact that she did not publicly support him before the election– afterwards, she did make some positive statements.  She was one of the first Cabinet members for the new administration to pass through the Senate.  She was confirmed by the Senate on a vote of 51-50 in which the Vice President had to come in to cast a tie-breaking vote; she did not even receive all the Republican Senators’ floor votes for confirmation.

Two Republican Senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, voted against her confirmation, despite having voted in committee to move her nomination to the floor.  Clearly their voting positions were intended to send a message that they were providing the minimum of support required of them.  Their weak support may have been influenced by the Democrats’ vociferous opposition.  This was the first time a nominee to a Cabinet position was confirmed by a tie-breaking vote from the Vice President in a very, very long time.

Despite scraping through the Senate, Ms. DeVos has remained on the Cabinet ever since– quite an accomplishment for the present administration and making her one of the longest-serving Cabinet members, along with Ben Carson and Mrs. Mitch McConnell.  They have all retained their positions by keeping their heads down, avoiding scandalous spending, and not granting interviews.

Ms. DeVos has a very clear agenda: she wants to defund public education in the United States and substitute charter schools and home schools.  What money she would support spending would be in the form of payments to families with children so they could be being home-schooled, preferably in a religious curriculum.  She has been consistent in pushing this agenda throughout her career, including… her early leadership of the “Great Lakes Education Project.”  This “project” pushed the establishment of “charter schools”, which are publicly supported but privately run educational institutions.

Michigan, and Detroit in particular, became the center of the US charter school movement partly as a result of her backing.  The movement has led to hollowing out of public schools, especially in underserved areas like central cities.  Detroit is a particularly egregious example of the effects of this movement.  As its population dropped and became more minority-dominated, funding became ever weaker.  The charter school movement allowed private companies to run schools with support from public funds, further draining the public schools of public support.  This New York Times article from 2016 describes the disastrous results.

Ms. DeVos wants to substitute home schooling and a few charter schools for our public school system.  She wants to reduce funding for schools overall and substitute a tax break for families that home school their children.  This is primarily an excuse for families to religiously educate their children at home rather than pay for them to be educated in public schools alongside minority children.  Public schools, in the view of her supporters, are godless communist indoctrination systems.  Charter schools, as private institutions from their point of view, would have more leeway and motivation for religious instruction.

All of her claims that poor children are left behind by public schools are so much gaslighting.  Poor families can’t afford to home school their children.  They need the public schools to keep watch on and feed their children during the day so that both parents (when there are two parents) can work, and make enough money to support them.  Grandparents in poor families are not strong enough to care for children at home during the day, if they have not already died from the novel coronavirus.

Betsy DeVos has been a very effective advocate for quietly defunding public schools under the banner of charter schools.  She has been destroying them from the inside, just as most of the current president’s Cabinet members have tried to destroy the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control, and other executive branch agencies.  The damage that this president has done to our federal government is immense and will take years to undo.  All the more reason for us to vote in eight years of Democratic administrations, with a House and Senate to match.

 

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