Op-Eds Speaking Truth to the Powers-That-Be
Hucksters of a feather stick together. President-elect Trump’s pick of Betsy DeVos, charter school queen, for Secretary of Education, is as politically seismic an event as Stephen Bannon, the fascist cheerleader of Breitbart, finding a place in the Trump White House. DeVos is the leading edge of billionaire appointees that was last seen during the rise of the Industrial era of the 19th century.
Betsy DeVos, along with her multi-billionaire family fortune of the Amway empire, pushes school vouchers and the myth that charter schools are anything more than a move to indoctrinate millions of children in an ultra conservative mindset that validates white, wealthy Social Darwinist rule.
Charter Schools are no better than public magnet schools. Even the partisan-funded pro-charter-cheerleaders at the74million.org concede:
“For a student who started at the 50th percentile of performance, attending an average charter school for one year would raise the student’s performance to 50.6% in reading and 51.4% in math.”
So if the results, overall, are flat, why push for voucher-driven Charter Schools that fund private companies and drain money from public school systems?
Charter Schools drain money from the public systems, bust teacher unions, and can be structured as religious, cultural and political madrasas operated by the wealthy Christian Right, right here in America.
Less famous than the Koch Brothers, the DeVos are key players in the right-wing Dead Billionaires Club, a movement of largely Social Darwinist-Christian conservatives to roll back America to pre-New Deal, Hoover industrialism where there were no social safety nets like Medicare and Social Security, or progressive education.
They use their millions donated to transform America from the ground up into their utopian, some say dystopian, white-dominant Christian nirvana.
“Since 1970,” Mother Jones reported, “DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes–think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups.”
The DeVos control three philanthropic foundations that Inside Philanthropy describes as having “a remarkable talent for moving money by the truckload into socially conservative causes to shift voters’ and lawmakers’ mindsets in a rightward direction.”
Knowledge is power, and shaping how that power views the world maintains their control over a nation whose populace is becoming majority minority.
Elizabeth “Betsy” Prince DeVos was raised in religious-run schools like Holland Christian Schools and Calvin College, has never attended a public school. Her children have never attended a public school. She has no experience as an educator. She is a daugher-in-law of the founder of Amway, Rich DeVos. Rich turned pyramidic sales into a $7B+ empire. He and his children all have foundations that push that common agenda.
“Betsy DeVos has been a major financial backer of legal efforts to overturn campaign-spending limits,” the New Yorker reports:
“In 1997, she brashly explained her opposition to campaign-finance-reform measures that were aimed at cleaning up so-called “soft money,” a predecessor to today’s unlimited “dark money” election spending. “My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee,” she wrote in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. “I have decided to stop taking offense,” she wrote, “at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something 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.'”
Betsy has worked hard to make her investments pay off. She has served for six years as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. With husband Dick, their private Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation, has created “an intricate national network of non-profits, political action committees and federal groups known as 527’s that effectively fund the political arm of the school voucher movement, ” notes People for the American Way. “DeVos money flows into the coffers of various ultra-conservative candidates, committees, and causes. Nowhere is the impact of the DeVos family fortune greater, though, than in the movement to privatize public education.”
The couple have been two of the biggest funders of the anti-public school, pro charter-voucher movement that has been rejected time and again by voters in most states because it takes already scarce money from the public education system and puts it into the hands of private companies, and can be used to set up religious sectarian schools using the public funds of Americans who may not believe as the true believers do.
Their ballot initiative for school vouchers that she and her husband spent millions to promote in Michigan was defeated by 68% of the voters in 2000.
Her appointment as Secretary of Education would not be without hurdles. The Breibart noise machine of the AltRight is painting her incorrectly as pro-Common Core, and tagged her and her husband with donations to the Clinton Foundation, a cardinal sin amongst card-carrying ultra-rightists. She is also the Chairwoman of the Windquest Group, which lists a charter school, West Michigan Aviation Academy, as one of their portfolio of assets.
DeVos serves on the board of the Acton Institute, which promotes the idea that Christians should take control of American political and social institutions. One article that the group published was an anti-education piece that advocates bringing back child labor, extolling the myth that teens working in mines and factories will lead them to success:
“They are working in the adult world, surrounded by cool bustling things and new technology. They are on the streets, in the factories, in the mines, with adults and with peers, learning and doing. They are being valued for what they do, which is to say being valued as people. They are earning money.”
The DeVos family has been rabidly anti-union. They were instrumental in turning Michigan into a “right to work” state where unions employment is not a requisite to work in unionized labor forces. Right to work undercuts unions ability to organize, collectively bargain for their members, and stand up to management for member health, safety, and welfare issues.
Between 2009 and 2012, of the estimated 6,800 charter schools in 42 states, unionized schools dropped from 12% to just 7%, the Center for Education found in 2014. DeVos will surely push for even less union presence in education, and find an ally in Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
“[Speaker] Ryan, like the rest of the Republican Party, sees public schools as a free handout, a program used by poor people who cannot afford private school and a secular institution that removes God from kids’ lives. They also know that everyone’s tax dollars pay for this and they have a plan to stop it.,” Salon and Alternet note.
The DeVos like to paint the National Education Association (NEA), the national teachers’ union, and the local unions, as protecting failing tenured teachers who are blocking the way to greater improvement at America’s public schools. Yet Charter outcomes are the same. So why are charter schools a mission of Ms. DeVos and the far Right?
It is a power play, pure and simple. Charter schools, on the whole, run their pedagogy from the top down. The company, whomever runs it, may talk parent boards and teacher input, but more often than not the corporation running the school’s upper management, whatever unaccountable, unelected, and often politically partisan bureaucrats that may be, dictates educational policy and curriculum without much transparency.
They bust teacher unions, pay less, demand more, and they can set up any curriculum that they want, as long as it remains within the vague statutes of most state education policies. More important, teachers often don’t participate in determining the focus of the curriculum or the pedagogy used in the schools.
When Alisha Mernick, a teacher employed by the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based charter school group, tried to unionize their teachers and counselors during nonworking hours, Alliance called the sheriff out and tried to remove her from school grounds, even though Alliance had been handed a temporary injunction allowing the organizing to continue as long as it did not interfere with the business day of the school.
Mernick and her fellow teachers didn’t organize over their pay, or work conditions. They were more concerned with being dialed out of the conversation about Alliance’s education policies. They believed that the company wasn’t operating under its charter mission of smaller classes and a personalized learning environment for its mostly poor, African-American or Latino students. They wanted more input into the curriculum, and more transparency as to how the school gauges performance and spends the money provided by the public to operate.
Charter schools aren’t subject to much curriculum scrutiny as long as they meet the basic state guidelines, which are also being “shaped” in many states to reflect conservative values and views.
The Heritage Academy, a publicly funded charter school in Mesa, Arizona, is being sued by Americans United for Separation of Church and State which “alleges that instruction by the school’s founder and American government instructor Earl Taylor Jr. teaches that socialism violates God’s laws and that “true patriots” believe in a universal religion of mankind that incorporates tenets of some Christian denominations as well as religious concepts.”
“Charter school management has also turned to parents and even students to thwart unions,” Politico reports. “Witson found one school where students who tried to access homework assignments on the school website were confronted with a pop-up ad directing them to anti-union links.”
When it comes to pay though, teachers in charter schools are expected to work longer hours for less money than their public and private school counterparts, without additional pay. Payscale.com notes that charter school teachers make $36,093 – $40,101 a year, while US News notes that the salary range of mostly unionized teachers, is 37,540 – $88,910, with a median income of $56,310. By contrast, starting pay for similar higher degree jobs like computer programming is $43,635, and registered nurses at $45,570.
Most charter schools expect overtime, but do not allow overtime pay, although a federal rule change by the Obama Administration may force them, along with other employers, to provide overtime, if the Trump administration does not roll it back.
The move to accept the Secretary of Education post is a big shift for DeVos, who worked hard to promote one of the billionaires’ hand-raised Tea Party/Freedom Caucus politicos like Ted Cruz. In this pick, Trump, also anti-union, may have found common ground with the Kochs, DeVos and Coors.
Some see these picks, moving away from Trump’s close association with the AltRight, as an encouraging sign of moderation.