President-elect Donald Trump’s recent nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary again provides more evidence that this administration aims not only to undermine public education and the public sector at large, constituting a direct assault on democracy, but also to further a two-tiered society of haves and have-nots by making access to quality education increasingly inaccessible to the children of working-class and middle-class families.
Of course, to understand these consequences of a DeVos appointment, we have to look behind the rosy rhetoric of “school choice” to understand that “school choice” actually means diverting money from the public education system to private schools and allowing a good number of public, particularly public neighborhood, schools to deteriorate by underfunding them.
It also means assaulting workers and their ability to democratically run their workplaces, as the efforts to undermine public education typically strike first teachers’ unions attempting to weaken them and wrest control of schools and education from them to put that control in the hands of bureaucratic administrators, although the rhetoric of “school choice” advocates like DeVos invariably represents teacher unions as the bureaucratic roadblock to quality education.
Basically, a more honest way of understanding the real program of the school choice movement is this: By giving you a choice to send your children to a school other than your underachieving (because under-resourced) neighborhood public school, we then free ourselves of our traditional, even sacred, national and social obligation to fund public education. Or at least our obligation to make sure all public schools are high-quality learning environments resourced with enough teachers to have manageable class sizes, libraries and librarians, adequate technology to meet the educational demands of our advancing world. Not to mention enough nurses, social workers, and psychologists to meet the needs of students.
If we give you a choice, advocates of the school choice movement effectively say, then we have an excuse to not fund your local public schools because we can always say we are giving you the “choice” to send your child elsewhere.
DeVos, who is currently chair of the American Federation for Children, a Washington, D.C.-based single-issue organization devoted to expanding school of choice options across the country, has exhibited exactly this intention of diverting funds from the public education system to private schools.
In 2000, for example, according to The Detroit News, Devos and her husband, Dick, “funded an unsuccessful statewide ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution to allow tax dollars to be used for private school tuition through education vouchers. They have since advocated for school vouchers in other states.” Additionally, in 2012, her husband spearheaded a charge to move the Michigan Legislature to eliminate rules that made paying fair share union dues mandatory for teachers’ employment in public schools.
DeVos has declared public teachers unions to be a “formidable foe” and an obstacle to educational reform.
Let me tell you why, though, using my hometown of Chicago as a case study, we all need to see this rhetoric as dangerous to our children and to our public education system.
When Chicago public school teachers went on strike in 2012, as usual, the media in representing the demands of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) tended to focus on issues regarding salary and job security for teachers as well as issues around teacher evaluation. These issues of teachers’ working conditions and salary certainly impact the quality of the learning environment.
Indeed, as the Illinois Education Association (IEA) likes to remind us, teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. But while the IEA makes this sensible argument, the media’s tendency to focus on these issues alone feeds those wishing to represent teachers, and more precisely the union, as greedy and unconcerned about children.
Much less represented in coverage of the strike, however, were several other key bargaining items. CTU, for example, was demanding that all schools have textbooks on the first day of classes; that all classrooms have air conditioning (temperatures in classrooms were reported at times to be over 100 degrees); that the staffing of social workers, counselors, psychologists, and nurses meet recommended national standards; that each school have a library; and more.
These are just some of the demands that have little to do with teachers’ narrow economic self-interest but with their interest in doing their jobs as collective schools in educating students and promoting students’ overall well-being.
As a parent who sends his two sons to a Chicago public school, I can tell you that the union and the teachers in it care far more for the welfare of my children than the unelected school board of Chicago (the only appointed rather than elected school board of all Illinois municipalities) or than Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who sends his children to private schools with small class sizes and where they are not subjected to the state-mandated testing for multiple weeks out of the school year.
That the teachers even need to bargain for having textbooks on the first day of classes is shameful. Any self-respecting school board that really cared for educating its students, that simply cared for children, would not make teachers plead for books. Imagine, then, where children in Chicago public schools would be without the CTU and the teachers advocating for them. Not in good shape.
The “school choice” movement does not want to ameliorate this situation or make sure these schools receive the resources they need to serve our children; instead, they want to tell us to send our children to other schools, selling us the illusion that somehow we can all “choose” to send our kids to the handful of public schools that are resourced properly or afford, even with vouchers, to send our children to private schools.
We need to keep in mind when unions are blamed as the obstacle to reform, that it is not unions who mandate testing or who created the common core standards. These efforts at reform have disempowered the very people who are closest to our children, the teachers. The unions are the teachers and are trying to give them control over their workplaces against the bureaucrats who often have little to no experience in the classroom or with students.
As we listen to DeVos, we need to be aware that the “school choice” movement actually diminishes our options because it justifies creating schools with lower-quality learning environments by under-resourcing them. And the efforts to undermine unions diminish democratic operations in our schools and disempower those who are most attuned to what our children need.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.