On January 17, Betsy DeVos, nominee for US secretary of education, went to Washington, DC, to face senators in a congressional hearing. What occurred during that hearing has left many Americans in total shock. Throughout the hearing, DeVos proved herself not only riddled with conflicts of interest and a lack of basic knowledge in education, but also a mindset that was hostile towards the public school system she was nominated to head. After her floundering on the Senate floor, DeVos was confirmed with a historic tie-breaker from Vice President Mike Pence and is now the secretary of education. Considering the reality of DeVos being confirmed, many of us have now been left wondering: “What is going to happen?”
Considering DeVos’ extreme dedication to specific causes, the realities of a DeVos education system are not hard to imagine. For years, DeVos has been an extremely strong proponent of two main things: conservative “Christian values,” such as anti-LGBT lobbying, and charter schools. Considering her strong dedication to these beliefs and past willingness to impose them, it is likely that we see her continued championing of these causes, except now on a national scale. To unpack what this means for the nation, we have to consider what these beliefs mean, in addition to what happens if they are pushed in our schools.
The Importance of the Public School
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To begin, we must realize that the public school system is incredibly important to a democratic society. Throughout our years in the school system, we learn different values, our history, and ultimately, through this, we construct the way in which we see the world. To put it briefly, the school is a space for developing and fostering the nation’s public thought.
This fact is not often ignored, and for years, many have understood and exploited this to push different agendas and to sculpt schooling in ways that reflect their values. Take, for example, the influence that special interests in Texas have over the textbooks that our students use. DeVos herself has a long history of using her influence to affect schooling in this exact way. As most are well aware, DeVos has a definite conservative Christian agenda that she has relentlessly pushed. What we can expect now is that DeVos will transfer her energy from lobbying and making million-dollar contributions to conservative causes and instead, will launch her agenda on a national scale in our schools.
Take, for example, the reality that DeVos could influence such things as whether evolution or climate change is taught in schools, or the way that the fight for LGBTQ rights is represented in textbooks. Imagine a nation that no longer teaches the scientific realities of climate change or fails to accurately reflect the realities of oppressed communities. While many of these battles are fought at the state level, there is no denial of the fact that the secretary of education does have a tremendous amount of influence on our schools. Through this influence, DeVos and the Trump administration can exert a tremendous impact on public and political thought in the US, and if successful, have tremendous effects on American mindsets.
The Realities of “School Choice”
Beyond these important battles over curriculum, DeVos is also prepared to launch an attack on the very ways our schools function in the same fashion that she did in Michigan. While most students in the US currently attend public schools, DeVos is vehemently opposed to this model for education and has been a major proponent of charter schools and “school choice.” While potentially alluring at first, what “school choice” essentially means is that if you have the money, you can move your student to a school besides your local public school and attend a charter school.
The issue that then arises is one of blatant inequality. Charter schools are often expensive, and as a result, many students are not able to afford the “choice” to attend these schools. So, as their more advantaged peers leave for charter schools (that still benefit from taxpayer dollars), many middle- and lower-class students are left in decaying buildings, with underpaid teachers and outdated textbooks, and most importantly, without any “choice” whatsoever. In reality, what school choice accomplishes is allowing economically advantaged students the “choice” to segregate themselves from their lower-income peers. This type of education system works to the advantage of a select few and turns its back on those who need it the most. And this is the exact type of education that Betsy DeVos has pushed for years and will almost certainly pursue nationally.
The Threat of Privatization
While charter schools create a tremendous disadvantage for any student not financially able to attend a charter school and add to inequality in the US, these schools also open up the door to yet another issue: Many of the charter schools around the nation, while simultaneously benefiting from taxpayer dollars, are privately owned and managed by corporations.
Ranging from the teaching techniques used in the classroom to the very curriculum that is taught, the corporation is in control of every element of education in these schools and with deeply troubling consequences. What we must realize is that when Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration push for the privatization of schools in the US, they are essentially pushing for this type of corporate privatization of schooling, and, in effect, our nation’s public thought. It is hard to imagine a much greater threat to our society than allowing corporations to exert tremendous influence over education, yet this is exactly the type of schooling DeVos almost certainly plans to proliferate.
Through the support of the charter school system and a relentless pursuit of a conservative agenda, BetsyDeVos threatens to greatly reshape American education. The risk this runs for the nation is hard to overstate and could devastate public progressive thought. From climate change to women’s rights, nearly every progressive achievement accomplished in recent years is being dismantled in the first months of the Trump administration. Now, with the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, we see a challenge raised to the very concept of free and informed public thought. We cannot stand idly by and watch as our schools are turned over to a new era of segregation and privatized control.