The educational crisis in the United States is a well-known but little discussed fact. In international educational rankings developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2014 the U.S. ranked 24th in reading, 28th in science and 36th in math. This dismal showing should create a national outcry, but analyses of the problem and possible solutions have been few and far between.
Educational “reformers” have been intent on blaming teachers, teacher unions and public schools in general for the myriad educational problems young people face on a daily basis. The answer provided by these so-called reformers has been something called “school choice.” Although the idea of parents having more say in selecting the schools that their children attend is a potentially good idea, school choice to organizations such as New York’s Families for Excellent Schools means charter schools. Families for Excellent Schools spends millions of dollars annually donated by hedge funds and wealthy donors, funding slick television propaganda campaigns attempting to convince citizens and political leaders that charter schools are the answer to all of our educational problems.
In the midst of this crisis, enter Donald Trump’s nominee to become the U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. DeVos is yet another member of America’s wealthy elite, with no professional experience in the field, selected to make educational policy decisions as a hobby. Remember Cathy Black, the Michael Bloomberg appointed NYC schools chancellor, who despite a successful career in publishing, crashed and burned as the city’s educational leader in less than a month. DeVos is cut from the same cloth. She has adopted “school choice” as her major educational policy issue despite no educational credentials and is now on the national stage as the potential U.S. educational leader.
A look at the DeVos family ties provides information as to how and why Trump has selected her as U.S. education secretary. Her maiden name is Betsy Prince. She is from the influential Michigan-based Prince family. Her brother, Erik Prince, is founder of the controversial murder for hire mercenary group, Blackwater. You may remember Blackwater for its role in the murder of Iraqi civilians during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The Prince family patriarch was Edgar Prince, an auto parts manufacturer. The Prince family fortune was built when Edgar invented and patented an item that all owners of automobiles are familiar with, the illuminated sun visor. If the Prince family fortune was not enough, Betsy married Dick DeVos Jr., heir to the Amway fortune. Amway is known for all the home-care products sold in our community by traveling salespeople hustling to move up the Amway sales pyramid. Along with the Prince and Amway fortunes came political influence as the DeVos family contributed to Republican Party causes and candidates. In return for political contributions, DeVos became chair of the Michigan GOP and her husband was the Republican nominee for governor in 2006.
DeVos founded an education not-for-profit called the American Federation of Children and serves as its chairperson. Using this organization as a platform, DeVos has strongly advocated for charter schools, voucher programs and scholarships that can be used to pay for portions of private school tuition at the K-12 level.
Basic to Republican and right wing thinking circa 2017 is the idea that federal government involvement in all phases of life should be reduced. Republican strategists believe in privatizing as many functions of government as possible. Health, education, housing, the environment and even Social Security should be in private hands according to these thinkers. Privatization also means that taxpayer dollars should be given to private corporations to run many endeavors we currently associate with government at the federal, state and local level. The privatizers want to move as much public money as possible into private hands. How does this reallocation play out in the field of education?
Charter schools, although public schools, divert taxpayer dollars in poor school districts away from efforts to improve public education. The charter schools, often run by for-profit groups, get an allocation of federal, state and local dollars for each student that attends. This money comes directly out of the school district budget wherever the charter school is located.
I worked as an administrator in a poor New York State school district that literally could not afford to pay for the charter schools that began to pop up as a result of federal programs that encouraged the growth of charter schools. Although there are arguments in support of charter schools, most are highly overstated. Numerous studies show that charter schools perform no better than public schools, often use coercive disciplinary tactics, misuse taxpayer dollars, do not service English language learners well, have problems providing appropriate educational environments for students with disabilities and actually further segregate our already segregated public school system. In confronting the pro charter school arguments of charter advocates, I often ask, “If charter schools are so good, why aren’t white parents clamoring for more charter schools in their communities?”
As if her charter school advocacy is not bad enough, DeVos also believes in an educational free market. She feels that all education needs to be deregulated. Under DeVos’ leadership, most rules and regulations that govern public schools would be discarded. Schools would then compete with each other for students. After intense competition, some schools would survive and others would ultimately fail and close. With profit as the most important element in most of these schools, all aspects of education would potentially be on the chopping block. Salaries, facilities, working conditions, school supplies and curricula would all be squeezed to extract the most money. Unfortunately, in this market-driven scenario, it would be children, parents and families who would be hurt most. Students would be pawns in an experiment that would not work.
Coupled to the educational free market concept is the idea of school vouchers. DeVos has also been a champion of vouchers. Families would be given a voucher worth a pre-determined amount of money for each child. Parents would then shop for the best school situation they can find. The voucher could be used in a private, charter or parochial (religious) school. The vouchers would not only heighten competition for student dollars but also increase the flow of money out of public schools as parents opted to send their children to some other type of school. Unregulated, unprofessional educational institutions would pop up all over, designed to absorb this new flow of taxpayer money. Educational hustlers would use slick advertising to attract parents and their children to poor performing schools, as has happened in New York City with the charter school movement. The resulting educational disaster would leave public schools and poor school districts gutted. It also needs to be pointed out that the dollar amount of a voucher would not be enough to pay tuition in the network of elite private schools around the country.
Educational initiatives championed by DeVos and her associates have not fared well in her home state of Michigan. As of 2016, in the “Quality Counts” report that ranks states based on their educational standing, Michigan ranked 35th of the 50 states that compose the so-called United States of America. Several Michigan charter schools have closed in the middle of the school year without warning. Despite using public money, these closing schools got to keep everything they bought with taxpayer dollars, including computers, school furniture and books. Fraud is rampant in these unregulated schools.
Historically, many of us recognize that education can be a liberator and equalizer. When we read “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” or “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs, we understand the primacy of literacy and information. Many will wonder what can we do to reverse this educational onslaught represented by DeVos. Call your Senator and Congress person at 202-224-3121 to express your displeasure. Get more involved in the education of your children. All research shows that schools improve when parents are involved on a meaningful level. Have your church or civic organization offer after school and weekend tutoring and educational enrichment programs. Finally, we must once again support and develop independent Black educational institutions that can once again provide cultural competence and educational excellence.
If children are the future, we must struggle to make sure that they will be adequately prepared in an increasingly technology and information driven world. We can settle for nothing less. Education secretary nominee DeVos provides little hope and no answers.
Basir Mchawi is a reader, broadcaster and activist.