By the time the U.S. Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education on February 7, 2017, she had already made history: the first education secretary with no experience in public education; the first whose display of ignorance at a confirmation hearing provoked national ridicule and a tsunami of grassroots opposition; the first billionaire political funder whose close-knit family had contributed to twenty-three of the senators who would be voting on the nomination; and the first candidate for a cabinet post in U.S. history to have so little support that the vice president’s vote was needed to break a 50-50 tie and secure the confirmation. Yet more alarming than anything else is Betsy DeVos’s contempt for public schools and her decades-long campaign to privatize them.
DeVos is a disciple of Milton Friedman, patron saint of the free market—a fact that justifiably panics supporters of public education. Friedman, who died in 2006, laid out his plan for K-12 schooling in a 1955 essay called “The Role of Government in Education.” The plan boils down to this: taxpayer funding but private control. The government would provide each child, through parents or guardians, funds in the form of a voucher to pay for what the government considers the minimum adequate education. Parents and guardians would then choose what education services to purchase on the free market. For Friedman the choices included private for-profit schools, private nonprofit schools, religious schools, and “some even” run by the government. Today Betsy DeVos and other free-market education reformers add home schooling and private online (“virtual”) schools to the mix. They also support privately run charter schools, financed directly by the government, not by student voucher money.
It’s a wealth of privatized choices meant to squeeze out, as much as possible, the least appealing alternative for free-market ed reformers: neighborhood public schools.
Taxpayer funded but privately run is how “privatization” of the public sector works in the United States. In countries where the government owns major companies or industries—for example, Aeroflot in Russia or the UK’s National Health Service—privatization means selling off enterprises to new owners in the private sector. In the United States, the government hands over control to private entities, but the taxpayers keep on paying. The most familiar U.S. example is the privatization of federal prisons.
In 1996 Milton Friedman and his wife Rose (also an economist) launched the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice as “the nation’s only organization solely dedicated to promoting their concept of educational choice.” “Choice” is the ed-reform movement’s euphemism for privatization. All the tools used to create choice—vouchers, charter schools, tax credits for private school tuition, tax credits for individuals and businesses that create private school scholarships, “education savings accounts” (usually government-funded debit cards used for various private-school expenses, not just tuition)—siphon tax dollars out of the public school system and into private hands. DeVos has worked with and donated to the Friedman Foundation.* Their visions for the future of K-12 education coincide.
Born in 1958 into what would soon become an extremely wealthy family, DeVos grew up as a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, attended a Christian high school and college, and married the multibillionaire heir to the Amway fortune, Dick DeVos. Active in the Michigan Republican Party since her college years, her political résumé includes state party chairwoman, Republican national committeewoman for Michigan, and finance chairperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Hard-line conservative politics and rigorous Christian faith run through the extended DeVos family. Members often coordinate their political contributions. Together they’ve given about $14 million at the federal and state levels in the last two years. The family has long partnered with Charles and David Koch on political funding projects.
For almost twenty-five years, Betsy Devos has arguably been the most dogged political operative in the movement to privatize public education. Under the banner of choice, she founded, funded, and/or led a mind-numbing list of organizations: the American Federation for Children, Alliance for School Choice, Foundation for Excellence in Education (Jeb Bush’s operation), All Children Matter, American Education Reform Council, Children First America, Education Freedom Fund, and Great Lakes Education Project. As secretary of education, DeVos will be indefatigable.
And iron-willed. One recent vignette captures the DeVos working method: In an effort to shape up Detroit’s scandalously under-regulated, poorly performing charter schools and rectify a shortage of school places in the city’s neediest neighborhoods, a coalition including some charter school advocates, business and labor representatives, Republicans, and Democrats proposed a nonpartisan oversight body to be called the Detroit Education Commission (DEC). With Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s endorsement, the Republican-controlled state senate approved the DEC in March 2016 as part of a Detroit emergency funding bill. When the Republican-controlled House took up the bill in May, the charter school lobby (generously funded by the DeVos family) launched a massive offensive to quash the DEC. Oversight, they argued, only adds another unnecessary level of bureaucracy, whereas parents’ choice in the market weeds out bad schools. The House Republicans acquiesced on May 5. When the bill returned to the Senate for reconciliation, the question remained: would the Senate gut its own bill by killing the DEC? Under threats from major donors, the Republicans caved on June 8. While the senate was still considering the bill, DeVos money began pouring in. In the fifty-six days between June 2 and July 28, nine DeVos family members contributed a total of $1.45 million to Michigan Republican Party organizations and candidates.
“[A] filthy, moneyed kiss to the charter school industry at the expense of the kids who’ve been victimized by those schools’ unaccountable inconsistency,” concluded an editor at the Detroit Free Press last September.
Denunciations like this have rolled off Betsy DeVos’s back for decades. As she wrote in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in 1997, “I have decided . . . to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return.”
Now that DeVos oversees the Department of Education, she will no doubt aim to expand privatization, especially vouchers, which are the most powerful tool. But how to do it will require some finesse, since the federal government has a relatively small role in K-12 education policy. State governments overwhelmingly determine how schools operate, sometimes overruling the wishes of local districts. To get the states to implement new policies, the federal government has just one effective tool—money.
A useful model for DeVos comes from the outgoing ed-reformer-in-chief, Barack Obama. He allocated $4.3 billion from the 2009 “stimulus package” to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who used it to create the controversial Race to the Top program. More than thirty states competed for RTTT grants by committing to a detailed list of K-12 reforms—reforms that often required changing state laws. In exchange for money, resource-strapped states agreed to evaluate teachers, at least in part, according to student scores on standardized tests; raise or eliminate any caps on the number of charter schools; and “turn around” low-achieving schools by turning them into charters, replacing the teachers and principals, or closing them. Many states found that implementing the reforms cost more than they received in grant money. Much worse, the reforms undermined public school teachers, robbed many neighborhoods of their most stable institution, and introduced into the public system less accountable, often poorly performing schools and financial malfeasance by private operators. But free-market ed reformers were thrilled. By opening the way for rapid charter school expansion, the Obama administration made the nation’s first significant progress toward privatization.
DeVos has the opportunity to achieve the same kind of breakthrough for vouchers. Many Americans oppose vouchers, knowing that they transfer taxpayer money to private and religious schools to the detriment of the public system. But DeVos doesn’t need to convince the public; she needs to convince state legislators and governors. Right now, Republicans control thirty-three governorships and both chambers of the legislatures in thirty-two states. They will be her greatest asset. Moreover, DeVos’s job will be easier today than it would have been six or seven years ago because ed reformers have made headway in substituting the appealing word “choice” for vouchers and privatization. “All parents should be able to choose the school that’s best for their children” is a winning platform. Equally good is “Why shouldn’t low-income parents have a choice of schools just the way wealthier parents do?” In January 2016, DeVos’s American Federation for Children released the results of a poll that affirmed the ed reformers’ choice of language: among likely voters, 70 percent supported the concept of school choice, whereas only 53 percent supported “school vouchers.”
Free-market ed reformers deny or dismiss the inevitable outcome of vouchers: an even more unequal K-12 system than we have today. Middle-class parents will add as much money as they can to their vouchers in order to get their kids into the best possible schools. The wealthy will spend whatever it takes to create an elite strata of schools that insure their kids’ advantages. Lower-middle-class families will scour the system for decent schools they can afford; they’ll find that the more decent the school, the higher the demand for it, and the higher the price. And the poor? They will go to “government schools”—a term that market ed reformers have long used to describe what everyone else calls public schools.
More precise advice for DeVos on how to open the way for further privatization has come from Andy Smarick, president of the Maryland State Board of Education and resident fellow at the free-market stronghold, the American Enterprise Institute. (DeVos family members are major donors to AEI, and Betsy sits on the board of trustees.) In a December 2016 AEI report, Smarick counsels the new administration to model its approach on the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), created by the Clinton administration in 1994. Clinton, like other neoliberal-leaning Democrats, embraced market-based ed reform early on. The CSP makes three-year grants available to states on a competitive basis for the purpose of opening or expanding charter schools according to each state’s existing laws. Thus the program has subsidized charter expansion without micromanaging policy. According to Smarick, more than 60 percent of all charter schools that have opened received CSP money. In 2016 the CSP received a $333 million appropriation through the federal government’s ongoing Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
For strategically thinking privatizers, the beauty of the CSP is that it avoids the curse of federal overreach. Relatively small, out of the national limelight, it has steadily increased the scope of charter schools without producing much of a backlash. Tip-toe through the process of expanding voucher programs, Smarick advises, because “some school choice antagonists are especially opposed to private school choice; they would vigorously fight any supportive federal efforts.” Note the use of “private school choice.” The phrase includes the various tax-credit schemes and “education savings accounts” as well as vouchers while also allowing Smarick to avoid the offending v-word.
Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump are in sync on privatization. In a September 8 speech on school choice, candidate Trump reiterated his only major K-12 proposal: to redirect $20 billion in federal funds to state-run block grants for subsidizing school choice for low-income children. In typical Trumpian fashion, he never specified what would be cut to come up with this immense sum. He made the speech at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, a for-profit charter school that received failing grades in key categories in its most recently published report from the Ohio Department of Education: F in achievement indicators met; F in annual measureable objectives; and a 23.3 percent chronic absenteeism rate. Trump began his remarks by thanking Ron Packard, the CEO of the school’s parent company, who was in the audience. Packard is also the founder and former CEO of the notoriously shoddy, for-profit, online education company, K12 Inc. Packard works with the right-wing American Legislative Education Council (ALEC), which drafts model legislation for conservative lawmakers around the country. As privatization expands so will the number of entrepreneurs like Packard who transform public education funds into profits.
The many hundreds of thousands of phone calls, emails, and visits to members of Congress to protest DeVos—the strongest opposition to any of Trump’s nominees—offer hope that citizens will scrutinize the department’s activities and pressure their representatives to oppose her agenda. Without vigilance and organized opposition, DeVos (and Trump) can’t be stopped.
Supporters of public education also need to wrest the national debate away from market-oriented “reformers.” We should be talking again about public K-12 education as the keystone of a strong democracy, as the incubator for citizenship, shared values, and social cohesion in a diverse nation, as the only educational institution obligated to serve every child who appears on the doorstep. Conservatives don’t bear sole responsibility for impoverishing the conversation over the last twenty-five years. The Clinton and Obama administrations reduced K-12 education to little more than the required stepping stone to the college degree that leads to successful competition in the global economy. That’s a meager sales pitch, making it all too easy for K-12 schooling to be chopped up into products sold on the market.
The only counterweight to “choice” is excellent public schools. So the only way to save public education (which is largely very good in the United States) from market reformers is to improve it where it needs improvement. Hundreds of thousands of public school teachers and administrators commit themselves to the task every day. The job also belongs to everyone who sees the need to rebuild American democracy. In the face of a DeVosian assault, we are all stakeholders in the public good that is public education.
Joanne Barkan has been writing about the privatization of public education and the relationship of “big philanthropy,” democracy, and education reform for the last six years. Her articles have appeared in the Guardian, Washington Post, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Nonprofit Quarterly, Jacobin, HistPhil, and Philanthropy News Digest as well as Dissent.
* On July 29, 2016, the Friedman Foundation changed its name to EdChoice to honor Milton and Rose’s “desire to separate their last name from their enduring vision.” The Friedmans certainly understood that Milton’s controversial reputation might limit the foundation’s influence. An anodyne moniker like EdChoice will blend in unobtrusively with the scores, if not hundreds, of other ed-reform organizations with similar names.
An earlier version of this article appeared under the headline Milton Friedman, Betsy DeVos, and the Privatization of Public Education.