Jennifer Berkshire asks a crucial question: Just how far right can Betsy DeVos go before the public rises up to quash her extremist agenda?
Never in modern history has there been a more unpopular, more polarizing Cabinet member. She is unpopular because her goal of defunding public education and showering public funds on religious and private schools is unpopular.
To understand what DeVos wants, you need only look at what ALEC wants. Arizona tops the ALEC report card, because it is the Wild West of school choice. Whereas Massachusetts is usually considered the best state in the nation for education quality and excellent teachers, it ranks far behind Arizona on the ALEC report card, at #32. To ALEC and DeVos, Arizona is #1, despite its low graduation rate (25 points below that of Massachusetts), its teacher shortage, and its perennially underfunded public schools. You see, Arizona has more choice than Massachusetts, and choice is a far higher goal to ALEC and DeVos than school quality.
The DeVos-ALEC project (shared by the Koch brothers and others on the fringe right) is the destruction of not just public schools and unions, but of the middle class and the American Dream of social mobility.
“DeVos wasn’t listed among the ALEC headliners this year, a line-up heavy on conservative has-beens like Newt Gingrich, William J. Bennett and Jim DeMint. But among this crowd she’s regarded as a conquering heroine. That’s because the right-wing in Michigan just realized a decades-long dream and a top priority for the DeVos family: not only did they succeed in making Michigan, the cradle of industrial unionism, a right-to-work state, they also killed teacher pensions. New teachers in the Mitten state, where teacher salaries dropped for the last five years in a row, will now fund their own retirement. ALEC called the move a win for teachers and taxpayers, but didn’t mention the part where taxpayers will have to cough up at least $255 million to “fix” a problem that the anti-public school crowd largely created. Ending teacher pensions, one of the last remaining benefits the state’s once-powerful teachers unions could offer their members, will only hasten the unions’ demise. In the words of the old Mastercard commercial: “priceless.”
“In a new book that examines the work of ALEC and other corporate lobbies in all fifty states (“The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time“), economist Gordon Lafer argues that the singular fixation upon crushing teachers unions is about much more than mere money. In virtually every community, schools represent the largest employer, providing something that is increasingly underheard of these days: decent wages, good benefits and the prospect of a retirement that doesn’t involve collecting cans. The presence of these large employers—schools, public universities, hospitals—raises the expectations of the public about what’s possible, Lafer argues. “ALEC’s vision of the future is actually really bleak,” Lafer told me recently. “That’s why so much of their legislative focus is on limiting what people are entitled to, especially in education.” The relentless effort to rid the world of teachers pensions, says Lafer, is also about lowering the expectations of everyone else.
“ALEC’s agenda for remaking public education in all 50 states can be distilled down to a single word: unpopular. Actually, make that two words: extremely unpopular. There is no constituency for blowing up the schools, swelling class sizes, replacing teachers with tablets and lowering the standards of who can teach. There is no real constituency for shifting money away from public schools to private religious institutions, which is why ALEC-backed voucher programs in states like Wisconsin and Indiana mostly benefit students who’ve never attended public schools. The key to enacting a deeply unpopular agenda, as any ALEC-ster worth her salt can attest, is to keep the public as far away from it as possible, which is why DeVos’ hat tip to local control in her speech was so laughable. The states where ALEC has come closest to realizing its dream of defunding schools, shifting public monies into private coffers and crushing teacher unions are also the ones where efforts to preempt local democracy and shrink the voting franchise are in full flower.”
Berkshire doesn’t let Democrats off the hook. Party leaders have been enablers of the attacks on public schools (think Arne Duncan, Andrew Cuomo, Dannell Malloy, Rahm Emanuel, Cory Booker). Berkshire writes:
“The irony is, of course, that the school privatization experiment that’s well underway in Denver has been the work largely of “progressive” education reformers, Democrats for Education Reform chief among them. The local teachers union is weak and getting weaker, not because of DeVos and the right wing but because of anti-union Democrats. DeVos isn’t a fan of the Denver model—charter choice, in her view, is a weak substitute for the real deal: publicly funded vouchers for private religious schools. Her visit to Denver shone a spotlight on ALEC’s extreme education agenda. Now it’s up to Democrats who’ve embraced school privatization themselves to explain how they’re different.”
Charters were on the ballot last November in Massachusetts, where the public rejected their expansion by a resounding margin of 62-38%.
Vouchers have been put on state ballots many times. The public has never supported them. DeVos and her husband sponsored a voucher referendum in Michigan in 2000, and it was overwhelmingly defeated, by a vote of 69-31%. The most powerful antidote to the DeVos privatization project is the vote. Like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz, who melted, her libertarian dream dissolves when tested at the ballot box.
Parents and educators in Arizona are gathering signatures to throw water on their legislature’s efforts to expand vouchers. They need to collect 120,000 signatures to do so (the legal requirement is 75,000, but organizers know that they must have far more than the minimum to withstand legal challenges.)
DeVos and ALEC threaten our democracy, and the only tool that can beat them is the method of democracy: the vote.
If you don’t like what DeVos wants to do to your schools, get active. Join the Network for Public Education. Join your state and local citizens’ groups (NPE can connect you). Practice the arts of democracy to save democracy. Participate. Vote.
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