Betsy DeVos and the GOP’s Plan to Destroy Public Schools

·8 min read
Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

“Republicans are trying to dismantle public education which educates 90% of American kids. That’s the end game, folks,” I recently tweeted upon hearing billionaire Betsy DeVos, Trump’s former Secretary of Education, admit: “I personally think the Department of Education”—which she used to run—“should not exist.”

The comment shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been following the GOP’s 70-year crusade to dismantle and privatize our public education system.

After Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, white supremacy ignited the right-wing culture war that burns across the nation in 2022 with battles over textbooks, critical race theory, school boards, mask mandates, and diversity initiatives. But instead of deploying the overtly racist tactics of the mid-20th century, the GOP now filters its agenda through racially neutral Trojan Horse slogans such as “school choice” and “parental choice.” The latter helped Republican Glenn Youngkin win the governorship of Virginia, and suburban parents have been successfully weaponized by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to ban books, punish teachers, and help kids avoid “liberal indoctrination” by ignoring the existence of gay people.

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DeVos was simply being true to form when she made her recent remarks at a Moms for Liberty summit, a training site for conservative activists to learn how to create majorities on local school boards. For years, she has zealously spent her millions on “education reform” and created the blueprint for Republican state legislatures. Specifically, she has been an evangelist for “school choice,” arguably the main policy focus of the 2020 Republican National Convention—which famously had no platform except to “enthusiastically endorse” Donald Trump.

School choice advocates like DeVos want to funnel public funds and resources to private schools and charter schools and away from public schools, which educate the majority of American children.

Although Republicans claim their pursuit of “school choice” is to help the children, one should be wise enough to know by now that Republicans—who oppose the child tax credit, gun control, and food stamps—only care about the pre-born. Once you’re out of the womb, you have to pull yourself up from your bootstraps and run for your life to avoid mass shootings.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Betsy DeVos stands in front of students from Digital Pioneers Academy during an event to discuss her proposal for Education Freedom Scholarships at the Education Department headquarters Feb. 28, 2019, in Washington, D.C. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Chip Somodevilla/Getty</div>

Betsy DeVos stands in front of students from Digital Pioneers Academy during an event to discuss her proposal for Education Freedom Scholarships at the Education Department headquarters Feb. 28, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Just listen to the late Milton Friedman, the libertarian free market economist and one of the preeminent ghouls of the 20th century whose failed and disastrous belief that the “social responsibility of business is to increase its profits” inspired a generation of Republicans to pursue policies that led to deregulation, corruption, racial inequities, and income inequality.

Before he was a Nobel Prize winner, Friedman began advocating “educational freedom” in 1955 as a racially neutral way to privatize schools and help racists get vouchers from the government to avoid integration. In a 2006 meeting with the right-wing advocacy group ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), Friedman proposed that the best strategy for parents to control their children’s education was to “abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it.”

Through “school choice,” conservatives can kill two birds with one stone. They’ll have the ability to eliminate public schools and significantly weaken teacher’s unions—such as the National Education Association, the country’s largest union, and American Federation of Teachers, both of which are huge Democratic Party donors, active in crafting education policy, and whose members largely vote for Democrats. Conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist admitted as much in 1998 when he said, “school choice reaches right into the heart of the Democratic coalition and takes people out of it.”

Since 2000, Republicans have tried to win over another Democratic coalition, Latino and African American communities, by selling them “school choice.” In particular, the GOP promotes charter schools as the best chance for their children to advance educationally, and escape “dead end” public schools.

Thankfully, parents in America already have a “choice” when it comes to sending their children to private schools or public schools. Some even choose homeschooling! I’m a product of both public and private education, first receiving an excellent Jesuit education at Bellarmine, a private high school in San Jose that promoted diversity, community service, and also taught evolution and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I later attended stellar public universities—the University of California-Berkeley for undergrad, and the University of California-Davis for law school.

There are, indeed, excellent charter schools (which, by the way, are publicly funded but privately owned), with highly-qualified staffs of educators that are committed to teaching their students and providing much-needed opportunities for children.

However, a 2020 study by Center for Research on Education Outcomes confirms that charter schools, which educate 6 percent of the nation’s kids, are not doing significantly better than public schools. For example, DeVos’s charter school experiment in Michigan—which was primarily bankrolled by her own millions and initiated by right-wing “school choice” organizations—has been a disappointment, with students recording test scores below the state average. In fact, nearly 50 percent of charter schools close by their 15th year.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Protesters demonstrate against President Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, on Capitol Hill on Feb. 6, 2017, in Washington, D.C.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Mario Tama/Getty</div>

Protesters demonstrate against President Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, on Capitol Hill on Feb. 6, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Mario Tama/Getty

Meanwhile, valuable funds are being drained away from public schools where some teachers and educators are now forced to use their own salaries to pay for school supplies. A number of charter schools have also been accused of being money-making schemes for corporations and avoiding accountability and transparency—especially when it comes to helping low-income students.

Charter schools have also not emerged as an educational panacea for poor children of color. There’s a reason why in 2017 the NAACP asked for a moratorium on charter schools, citing concerns about “the quality, accessibility and accountability of some charters, as well as their broader effects on the funding and management of school districts that serve most students of color.” If anything, charter schools have encouraged “white flight” and slightly increased racial segregation in their neighborhoods. Since they can pick their students, these schools have also historically been found to enroll fewer students with disabilities.

Through “school choice,” Republicans are like arsonists who deliberately burn down your community school, and then have the shameless audacity to turn around and say, “Wow, your schools are really terrible. Here, let me sell you on my equally crappy school instead.”

For Republicans who want to privatize education, the majority of America’s children are ultimately the inevitable casualties who must be sacrificed to achieve their cultural agenda, which isn’t about choice—but is instead about entrenching right-wing power, control, and Christian nationalism.

Betsy DeVos, all the way back in 2001, said, “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” She delivered these words at “The Gathering,” an annual meeting which brings together the country’s wealthiest Christians (who are gifted at completely ignoring Jesus and his teachings).

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Trump speaks as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue look on during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the press briefing room of the White House on March 27, 2020, in Washington, D.C.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Drew Angerer/Getty</div>

Trump speaks as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue look on during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the press briefing room of the White House on March 27, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Specifically, schools are DeVos’ chosen battleground and “school choice” is her weapon to ensure “greater Kingdom gain.” She laments that the church “has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity.” And she’s carrying out the hopes and dreams of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who once wrote that he “hope[d] to see the day when…we don’t have public schools. The churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them.” According to Andrew F. Seidel, a constitutional lawyer who has written extensively on Christian nationalism, the GOP’s ultimate goal in attacking education, books, and diversity initiatives is “to destroy public schools altogether.”

This perverse goal now has powerful allies thanks to right-wing activists who wear black robes and sit for life on the Supreme Court. In its last term, the Court helped erode the separation of church and state by ruling Maine couldn’t deny religious schools public funds that were available for secular schools. The Court also ruled in favor of a Christian public school football coach who led his students in prayer on the field.

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Right-wing activists tell me I should celebrate these rulings as a Muslim and that it’s a win for “religious pluralism.” They’ve also said they’d gladly welcome Muslim prayers in their kids’ schools. You can’t fault me for being agnostic about their professed noble intentions. These are the same folks who also supported Trump’s Muslim ban, helped mainstream the fake anti-Sharia hysteria, and continue promoting hateful antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews trying to replace and weaken Western civilization. Color me skeptical.

I actually have a great idea that helps us out of this mess. If the right-wing is indeed so concerned about our children’s education, perhaps the United States, the most powerful and wealthy country on Earth, could invest more funds in our public schools and give our teachers better wages. We can pay for this by taxing our religious institutions and churches. This will make American kids more competitive when they seek jobs in the global market, which in turn will help make America great again!

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Alas, we know Republicans and Christian nationalists don’t care about our kids. They only care about power and control. All of their choices regarding our schools are simply a way to that end—by any means necessary.

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