Monthly Archives: December 2016

Reading Betsy DeVos: All About Children?

Now that Betsy DeVos has been named the national Secretary of Education, we’re going to have to get used to articles like this, “Betsy DeVos is All About Children,” from Ingrid Jacques of the Detroit News.

But that doesn’t mean we have to believe anything about them.

Let me start with my shock that someone like Betsy DeVos could ever be named Secretary of Education. Much has been written about DeVos (see this for one of the best pieces) so I won’t go into it all other than to express my disdain. Really, it seems like getting a position in the Trump administration is like joining a golf club- just do what DeVos has done- pay your fee. Your ability or actual experience are irrelevant if you can afford the position.

As for the Jacques piece, it leaves me a bit flabbergasted. She begins by writing, “… DeVos embodies the principle that the education establishment fears most: school choice.” There’s much truth in that statement. I am scared sh*tless of school choice. (More to follow.) What’s notable here is her use of the phrase, “educational establishment.” This phrase works to bring up echoes of the same kind of intentional language from the right that devalues anything that we all hold in common, language such as “government schools”, and “status quo.” The argument implied by “reformers” like DeVos (and Jacques) is that public education is an institution that has little to do with the needs or learning of children, but rather is about the protection of adult careers. Yes. That is aimed directly at you, dear educator. The implication in the use of the phrase “education establishment” is that you do not care about children, and certainly not as much as Betsy DeVos. That you do not care about learning. That you only care about your big fat pay check, your pension and your summers off. You lazy S.O.B’s. So when you read “education establishment,” replace that with “lazy S.O.B.’s” and you will have an accurate reflection of how you are thought of by such “reformers.” It’s a way of reflecting disdain.

For you.

For us.

For the kids we work with.

To make it overtly clear, what Jacques’ code translates as is, “Devos embodies the principle that those lazy S.O.B.’s fear most: school choice.”

Keep that in mind.

Now about that choice thing….

Jacques gets to the gist of her support for Devos. “Traditional public schools that are doing good work and making progress have nothing to fear from DeVos. She’s supportive of any school that offers strong results. What she won’t tolerate is telling families they don’t have a choice if their neighborhood school is failing.”

The narrative of “failing” schools schools continues to irk. We know that such “failing” is a measure of the impact of structural racism and the conditions of poverty rather than the performance of schools. As long as the measure of schools success remains test scores, such “failing” is inevitably built into the reformers’ formula. As I’ve written before, “It is well known that what test scores indicate is not ability, but class status and geography. So what are these test scores really measuring?  By and large they are measuring the health of the communities the schools serve, not the schools themselves.  ‘Failing schools’ do not exist.  What do exist are communities that we have failed.”

The problem with “school choice” in terms of the broader context is that “choice” functions to privatize and obscure the social conditions that lead to this so-called “failure.” (Remember, quotes are necessary always when using the word “failure” in relation to schools.) If a school is not scoring well in terms of whatever measures are used to indicate said performance, a parent should have the option to “choose” a different school. This is a free market value- that of “choice”- imposed on the context of the common good that completely ignores the complications of racism and/or poverty that create the conditions that necessitate such “failure.” As Paul Thomas writes:

“Two facts remain important now as the election of Donald Trump and the apparent choice for Secretary of Education suggest that the zombie politics of school choice has been rejuvenated:

  • The overwhelming evidence for all aspects of school choice show little differences when compared to traditional public schools; some aspects can certainly be categorized as harmful, and any so-called positives are erased when those gains are explained—attrition, comparing apples and oranges, selectivity, inability to scale, etc.
  • Idealizing parental choice fails to step back to the bedrock promise of publicly funded institutions: insuring that choice isn’t necessary.”

I try not to delve into people’s intentions. I am more than willing to accept that Betsy DeVos truly does want the best for our children.

However, when you are named the Secretary of Education, such intentions are irrelevant. What remains relevant is the way in which the policies you support actually function.

Policies reflected by school choice function to:

  • Obscure conditions of structural racism and poverty
  • Serve as a disinvestment in public education, school communities and the common good, instead shifting investment to those most privileged by the status quo.
  • Increase segregation
  • Undermine the American ideal of justice for all.

Thomas again:

“People in poverty deserve essential Commons—such as a police force and judicial system, a military, a highway system, a healthcare system, and universal public education—that make choice unnecessary. In short, among the essentials of a free people, choice shouldn’t be needed by anyone.

No child should have to wait for good schools while the market sorts some out, no human should have to wait for quality medical care while the market sorts some out, no African American teen gunned down in the street should have to wait for the market to sort out justice—the Commons must be the promise of the essential equity and justice that both make freedom possible and free people embrace.”

People who are “all about children” actually work to affect the conditions of structural racism and poverty, conditions that are undeniably directly correlated to student learning.

DeVos? Not so much. The evidence shows that she is all about serving the market.