Thursday, January 26, 2017
Trying to get a better sense of where Betsy DeVos stands on education, reporters have descended on Michigan in recent weeks to study what has actually happened. Jennifer Berkshire canvassed the state and took a close look at its present and past history. The story she tells is that Betsy DeVos's charter and voucher agenda is a small part of a much bigger agenda. DeVos' real goal is political and her real target is the Democratic Party. The basic strategy: undermine public schools and you undermine public school teachers. Undermine public school teachers and you undermine the biggest unions. Undermine the biggest unions and you kill the Democratic Party.
That is pretty somber logic, but fits well with other data points outside of DeVos. Advocates in California, New York, and Minnesota have filed lawsuits claiming that teacher tenure violates students’ right education under state constitutional law. On its face, their claims are plausible. But the motivations behind those claims had relatively little to do with education and far more to do with breaking the backs of unions. That movement had been underway in several states and when it failed, advocates come up with the idea of these lawsuits. A major problem in those lawsuits, however, was that advocates overplayed their hands. They let their policy preferences for how teachers should be hired, fired, and evaluated dominate their constitution claims. In the end, their policy preferences were masquerading as constitutional claims and courts began to see through it.
I stand by that analysis, but these recent reports out of Michigan suggest that it is niave to consider these claims solely in the context of education policy. For those funding the movement—although certainly not all those who joined it--the challenge to teacher tenure was not just about policy preferences in education. It was about seizing political power.
This adds troubling layer onto the nomination of DeVos. Over the past few days, those who care about education have been shocked by how little DeVos actually knows about education. Enforcing disability laws, for instance, may very well be the biggest job of the Department of Education. Complaints of disability discrimination consume forty percent of the Department’s civil rights docket. And in terms of day-to-day functioning, ten percent of more the nation’s students are in enrolled in special education, which federal law closely governs. DeVos could not answer the simple question of whether all schools should have to comply with these laws. Later, she tried to clear up her lack of knowledge by saying she may have been “confused” about what the law required. In other words, she did not realize that it is a mandatory obligation of all schools receiving federal funds.
But if we go back to DeVos’s larger agenda in Michigan, these responses should not be shocking at all. Her desire and qualification for this job may not be about education at all. It may be about pure politics. This fits with a fact she was willing to confirm. Senator Bernie Sanders asked if it was true that her family has donated $200 million to the Republican Party over the years. After first evading the question, she admitted that it was “possible.”
The scary idea is not that DeVos knows nothing of education or event that the Secretary of Education position is quid pro quo for politic donations. Those things happen. The scary idea is that she might use the power of the Secretary of Education to break the Democratic Party. Parents and families of all political parties want a Secretary of Education who cares about education, regardless of whether they agree with her policies.