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For the past eight years, we collectively have had to figure out how to cope with lovers of privatization who claimed that they were reformers. They wanted to “save poor kids from failing schools” by opening privately managed charters that were all too often academically weak and financially unaccountable. They liked to fire the entire staff of struggling schools and hail their courage for daring to disrupt the lives of students and teachers. They praised high-stakes testing as part of their civil rights activism. They loved first-year teacher far more than those who made teaching a career. They also claimed that their disruption was done in the name of civil rights, and that they were progressives.
But now they have a problem. Trump has adopted their agenda of replacing public schools with charter schools. Shall they show Trump some reformer love or shall they express revulsion for his bigotry? Or both?
Historian and teacher John Thompson reviews the reformers’ dilemma:
The press release for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) on the appointment of Amway heiress, Betsy DeVos, as Secretary of Education illustrates the moral and practical dilemmas faced by corporate school reform in the wake of the Trump election. DFER “applaud(s) Mrs. DeVos’s commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools.” However, DFER claims to be “deeply concerned by much of the President-elect’s education agenda, which proposes to cut money from Title I and to eliminate the federal role on accountability.”
DFER Statement on President-elect Trump’s Nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education – Democrats for Education Reform
Notably absent is a condemnation of DeVos’s devotion to vouchers, for-profit, private charters, and accountability-free virtual schools. Neither does DFER mention that 80% of the charters in her state of Michigan are for-profit.
DFER also protests that “our children are threatened by many of the President-elect’s proposals, such as kicking 20 million families off of healthcare, deporting millions of Dreamers, and accelerating stop-and-frisk practices.” It criticizes “Trump’s bigoted and offensive rhetoric [which] has assaulted our racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, causing millions of American children to perceive that they are less than full members of our communities.” The corporate reform think tank gives little indication, however, as to how much it will cooperate with DeVos’s rightwing agenda and the bigotry of Trumpism.
The reformers’ dilemma is not new, but now there is a new urgency to their need to look at themselves in the mirror. DFER isn’t likely to ask whether years of reformers’ attacks on loyal Democrats made a difference in Trump carrying Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Neither are they likely to question their faith in data-driven accountability even if they reckon with the finding that DeVos’s American Federation for Children reported to the Wisconsin elections board it spent only $345,000 on state legislative races in 2012. It bragged in another document that it spent $2.4 million in helping elect nine pro-privatization legislators.
But, what will happen if reformers cooperate with the “co-founder and current chair of the boards at the anti-teachers-union state advocacy groups Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children (AFC) and a close friend of teachers union opponent Campbell Brown?”
Oh, yeah, DFER and other reformers have already teamed with Campbell Brown, The 74, and an alphabet soup of hedge fund entrepreneurs in their legal assault on the due process rights of teachers. They have also collaborated with others, such as Michelle Rhee and Eva Moskowitz, who promise to work with Trump. But, what happens if reformers go along with for-profit charters and online schools in order to advance their scaling up of “public school charters,” and Trump’s overreach in domestic and foreign policies is so extreme that it brings their new allies and agenda down?
Or worse, what if they help Trump and his racist, sexist, and xenophobic policies are implemented?
Corporate reformers haven’t been shy about their funding from the Gates and Broad foundations, which is worrisome enough. One would think that they would have at least been squeamish about support from the Walton, Arnold, Bradley, and DeVose families. They should consider a 2014 analysis of the DeVos family’s rightwing agenda which concluded that they “sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement.” Richard DeVos Sr. “was an early member and funder of the Council for National Policy, a secretive network of hardline conservative leaders founded by Left Behind author Tim LaHaye.” Betsy’s father was a founder of the conservative Christian, anti-choice Family Research Council. Her brother founded the infamous Blackwater private security company.
Disgraced Texas congressman Tom DeLay advanced their agenda under the informal name of the “Amway caucus.” Other DeVos allies include gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson, Texas investor Harold Simmons, Jim Boop, general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee,” who also was the chief architect behind the controversial 2010 Citizens United case” and, of course, Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
I’ve long tried to communicate with reformers. Despite their demonizing teachers, unions, education schools, school boards, and Democrats who see high-stakes testing and charters differently, many speak privately about the mixed feelings they felt when uniting with rightwing reformers. They did so, I’m often told, because they believed it was necessary for Democrats to prove their toughness by battling unions and other loyal party members. The Obama administration, for instance, supposedly adopted an ALEC-lite, Scott Walker-lite, and Betsy DeVos-lite education agenda in an effort to keep the far Right from completely destroying public schools. In doing so, they helped open the door to mass charterization, and electing a President with strong support from the Alt-Right.
Reformers must finally look in the mirror and contemplate the fact that they and their allies have common links to intertwined, mostly hidden, corporate funding networks that have choreographed an extremist, anti-government campaign. Media Matters explains about DeVos’s American Federation for Children (AFC):
AFC’s website also directs readers to visit websites for its “national allied organizations,” which include the State Policy Network of conservative think tanks (of which the Alliance for School Choice is listed as an associate member), the American Center for School Choice, the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Cato Institute, the Center for Education Reform, Education Next, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (HCREO), the Institute for Justice, K12 Inc., National School Choice Week (NSCW), Stand for Children, StudentsFirst, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The AFC website also lists “state allies,” many of which are also members of the State Policy Network.
DFER claims that it aims “to return the Democratic Party to its rightful place as a champion of children, first and foremost, in America’s public education systems.” To do so, however, it embraced the edu-politics of destruction. It used the Billionaires Boys Club’s money to help pioneer a new type of public relations spin that has culminated in what is now called “post-fact.” DFER shared a false “bad teacher,” pro-charter narrative throughout a web of like-minded think tanks and interest groups. Now it must decide how much it will collaborate with a President of the United States who might even owe his victory to the Russian propaganda machine, spreading its fake news across the digital social networks that reformers also used to share their intellectually dishonest soundbites.
And that brings us closer to the real danger which DeVos represents for schools, and the nation. She is not just a run-of-the-mill corporate school reformer who pushes reckless market-driven policies in order to bring disruptive innovation to public schools. Contrary to her otherwise universal commitment to “choice,” DeVos vigorously campaigns against women’s right to choose. She brings the same zealotry to the Right to Life movement as she does to the promotion of vouchers and for-profit education ventures, and her financing of so-called Right to Work union-basting.
For DFER to honestly claim that it is working with DeVos and Trump in order to help children, it would have to believe that privatized jails and prisons, privatized water systems, and expanded Blackwater’s mercenaries were scaled up for the benefit of nonviolent offenders, the citizens of Flint, Michigan, and Iraqi noncombatants (and the American soldiers who faced the retaliation sparked by Blackwater’s abuses.)