Educators across the U.S. are rightfully disgusted by the incoming Trump administration. On Nov. 23, Trump appointed Betsy DeVos for U.S. secretary of education. DeVos is a billionaire from Michigan with a history of using her inherited wealth as a means to support right-wing causes including dismantling public schools in Michigan. Privatizing public education has been and will be a priority for DeVos.
She inherited billions from her father, and her brother founded Blackwater, the private mercenary firm. The DeVos family through their foundations has given millions to anti-LGBTQ groups such as Focus on the Family and The National Organization of Marriage, which have opposed the LGBTQ community on issues such as marriage equality, and have supported prohibiting students from using restrooms that match their gender identity among other issues.
Trump is proposing to take $20 billion in federal spending from public schools and give it to charter and private schools through vouchers. Voucher proponents claim that school vouchers, which direct funds that would have gone to public schools to individuals instead, give parents a choice as to what school their child attends. But in reality, the money parents receive through vouchers is not enough to attend expensive private schools, so the vouchers are most often used by wealthy people as a subsidy for their children to attend elite schools. Working-class parents will most likely be sending their children to religious schools.
Trump, like his predecessor Obama, will attempt to use the presidency as a vehicle to promote pro-privatization measures on a statewide level, including schools that reject science and demonize LGBTQ people. More federal and state money will also go towards charter schools that refuse to educate some students due to learning disabilities, low test scores, or behavioral issues. With most charter schools, there is no way to account for how public funds are spent. Trump’s proposals, if enacted as proposed, would be an existential threat to public education in the United States.
DeVos, unqualified reactionary
Betsy DeVos has never been a teacher. Her children attended private schools, and she is utterly unqualified to be the U.S. secretary of education, having never worked in education. She is in a position of power because she was born into a wealthy family that is one of the country’s biggest contributors to the Republican Party. DeVos is an anti-public school activist who founded an organization called the American Federation of Children, which seeks to divert money from public schools to religious schools and unregulated charter schools. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in an AFT statement: “DeVos has no meaningful experience in the classroom or in our schools. The sum total of her involvement has been spending her family’s wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan.”
The influence of the DeVos family on public education in Michigan has been catastrophic. Michigan spends over $1 billion a year on charter schools, and the schools are notoriously unregulated. Most charter schools are run by for-profit companies that refuse to disclose how they spend the public money they receive. Corruption is rampant, with many instances of school board members and charter school capitalists arranging lucrative deals for personal profit. It is easy to open a charter school in Michigan, and unlike traditional public schools, there are no consequences for low academic achievement. School vouchers have hurt the most vulnerable students in the state and charter schools have performed worse on mandated state tests than traditional public schools. (Detroit Free Press, Aug. 24, 2016)
Money that should be going to public schools is essentially being given away in Michigan while public schools decay. The influence of the DeVos family has been instrumental in the ongoing destruction of public education in Michigan. Never in the 40-year history of the Department of Education has the U.S. had an education secretary who is so blatantly hostile to public schools. The ultimate objective of the education reform movement is not reform at all but to privatize all public schools.
Rights for LGBTQ students in schools will also be under attack. The DeVos family has given millions to anti-LGBTQ groups over the years. This is especially troubling at a time when LGBTQ students are fighting for equity in schools such as the right to use the restroom of the gender with which they identify. A Trump presidency may spark an increase of hate crimes and other forms of bullying.
The need for systemic change
We must not forget that the cause of fully funding public education has taken serious steps backwards during Obama’s presidency. Obama’s signature education legislation, Race to the Top, expanded charter schools while creating more federally mandated tests. Test scores from irrelevant tests gained greater importance during the Obama administration. Teachers were horrified at the idea of Trump appointing former Superintendent of Washington, D.C., Schools Michelle Rhee, yet Obama’s education secretary was a huge supporter of Rhee. Duncan desperately attempted to persuade Rhee to stay on as head of D.C. schools after he found out she planned on quitting. The MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found in 2012 that teacher morale was lower than at any time during the 25-year history of the survey. (Washington Post, Oct. 21, 2016)
The struggle educators face within the political process mirrors that of the system at large. Teachers are told they must pick the lesser of the two evils. But attacks on public schools have intensified in the last 20 years under Democrat and Republican presidents alike. Educators must be prepared to partake in mass mobilizations in cities throughout the United States. Teachers must show solidarity across state lines while building coalitions with students and parents. It is not just Republicans and Trump we are up against, it is also the Democrats and the whole capitalist system and its never-ending zeal for profits.