Betsy DeVos: Why American Democracy Is Broken

Betsy DeVos might be the least qualified person ever to be nominated to head a federal department. I’m not saying that because she is gaffe prone (the schools need guns to protect against bears fiasco), or because she seems genuinely unintelligent (not understanding the difference between proficiency and growth in an educational context), or even because she has an openly Christian bias in education (she seriously thinks it’s her and the DoE’s job to “advance the kingdom of God.”) – she is the least qualified person because she is bad at administering schools.

Besty was the chair of the American Federation for Children, a charter-school advocacy group, in her home state of Michigan. The organization has been responsible for a push towards allocating taxpayer money to a voucher system whereby parents choose a private institution to send their child and the government supplies a voucher to cover the costs. This approach is lauded by its supporters as promoting choice in education– the prevailing rhetoric being that Americans should have final say about where and how their children are educated.

On the face of it, that seems like a good thing. Of course, the average American should be able to choose where and how their kids go to school. Who is the government to tell you how to educate your children? Well, as it turns out, the government is the only regulatory body capable of making sure your kid actually learns. According to an article in the Washington Post, the rise of the charter school system in Michigan saw literacy and mathematics drop well below the state standard. Horror stories abound. Superintendents with $130,000 annual salaries but no degree in education; schools expanding into new neighborhoods despite being unable to meet state baseline criteria; students unable to read being bumped to the next grade. How could someone who champions education be satisfied with these results?

Unfortunately, Betsy DeVos doesn’t know anything about education. She has no degree in pedagogy, no experience working in schools or school systems, neither she nor anyone in her family has attended a public school. Besty DeVos has, and I cannot stress this enough, no experience in education. She does, however, have a lot of experience in lobbying. Her billionaire family has thrown a lot of money at the Republican part over the years (some sources say over $200,000,000) including a startling $25,000 a day in 2000 to lawmakers who subsequently overturned a bill that would have increased oversight of charter schools. In fact, Betsy has been pretty open about using her money to buy influence. In a piece for Roll Call in 1997, she wrote the following,

I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.

We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.

People like us must surely be stopped.

Four members of the committee who conducted DeVos’s hearing were recipients of her donations. The Senate alone has received $115,000 from DeVos in personal donations as well as an additional $950,000 from the DeVos family. The woman bought herself a cabinet position; there is no other way to put it.

But why bother investing these huge sums to privatize schools?

Because charter schools are a business and there is a lot of money to be made in them. The bottom line is that charter schools set their own prices and are not responsible to the state or public to provide a quality product. Yes, there are good charter schools where children can receive a good education. I get that and would never deny it. But without state oversight, there is no guarantee that children will receive that education.

Which brings me to my broader point about choice and democracy in general.

Choice in education is not a good thing. A high, democratically arrived upon standard in education is the goal, and that should not be up to the parent. Children are owed a responsible, thorough education that is unilateral and consistent regardless of class, geography or state. No one should pick and choose what math or what science their child learns – education is fundamentally about supplying children with knowledge of fact and access to information. The best way to do that is through a strong, state-funded education system and not in private schools. (Don’t believe me? Visions of a bloated bureaucracy, test scamming and bad results dancing in your head? Ask Finland, a country with the strongest schools in the world, which are 100% state funded and operated and cost on average 30% less than an American school.)

The problem with American education is the same fundamental problem with American democracy; there are no safeguards to protect the people from the best interest of the wealthy. Of course Betsy DeVos was ratified – she paid for it. Just like she paid to have schools privatized in Michigan. Just the way that the rich and powerful can pay for the presidency and lower taxes and a lift on restrictions to corporate interest in America. It’s all up to the highest bidder. The notion that any of this, the whole perverse farce around DeVos and the rest of the cabinet, was ever up to the will of the people is a cruel joke.

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