Debate makes Clear: Public Education, the Public Good itself, Hang in the Balance in 2020

When asked about his approach to education in last Thursday’s Democratic primary debate, Pete Buttigieg’s response boiled down the difference between his approach and Donald Trump’s to its most  basic element.  “Step one,” he said, would be to “appoint a secretary of education who actually believes in public education.”

Buttigieg’s pithy statement put sharply into focus the stakes the 2020 election holds for the health, indeed the fate, of public education in America—even the fate of the public good itself.

As basic and common sense as this first-step solution is, that someone needed to say it—and that it actually and accurately captured reality—should speak volumes to the American people about how the Trump administration has approached and understood the role of governing overall. For Trump, the role of government is not to support the public good and cultivate a vibrant public sphere that enables and encourages people’s democratic participation in serving each other; rather, for Trump, governing is about using—or abusing—the power of the presidency to help some exploit our national resources to profit off of others–at the severe expense of those others.

Of course, the lawsuit moving forward against Trump for violating the emoluments clause in the Constitution alleges this same behavior.

But compelling allegations aside, Trump’s own behavior speaks for itself.

Last August he appointed a labor secretary, Eugene Scalia, who has historically devoted his energy to undermining the rights and conditions of labor in favor of the businesses who profit from exploiting workers.  As Morgan Chalfant reported for The Hill, Scalia “has a career history of representing businesses and fighting to roll back labor regulations. One of his more prominent cases involved representing Walmart as the retail giant fought a Maryland law on employee health care.” Labor unions vigorously opposed his appointment because of his long record of fighting for business against labor.

And, of course, Trump’s appointments to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, previously Scott Pruitt and now Andrew Wheeler, have aggressively sought to assault rather than protect our environment.  Pruitt was instrumental, for example, in convincing Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord; and for a taste of Wheeler’s environmentally destructive antics, just look back to last Thursday when the EPA rolled back Obama-era regulations on clean water.

And just as Trump’s labor secretary and EPA head support business’s profits over the well-being of workers and people generally, as all our impacted by deteriorating environmental standards, it is no different when it comes to the secretary of education Betsy DeVos.

DeVos has repeatedly undermined access to education for America’s students and, in her routine yet stalwart support of for-profit education, participated in fleecing Americans of millions of dollars and leaving them, as they earnestly sought degrees to improve their lives and pursue their dreams, without degrees.

At the end of last August, DeVos, reversing policies put in place during the Obama administration to enable students to seek forgiveness for loans they received when for-profit colleges defrauded them, made it more difficult for students to qualify for such loan forgiveness.

She complained students were just raising their hands to get “free money.”

Eileen Connor, legal director of Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, found these rollbacks so unconscionably egregious that the project has vowed to challenge them in court.   She said, “If Betsy DeVos won’t do her job and stand up for students, then we will fill that void. That is why we will be filing a suit challenge these harmful new regulations that give a green light to for-profit colleges to continue scamming students.”

Senate Democrat Dick Durbin similarly characterized the move “another Trump-DeVos giveaway to their for-profit college cronies at the expense of defrauded student borrowers.”

Indeed, let’s not forget that shortly after the 2016 election Trump settled a lawsuit for $25 million against his own sham for-profit Trump University.

When it comes to education, too, the Trump presidency is all about either enriching himself and his family at the expense of people and the public good or helping others do so.  The overarching policy of his administration is to create conditions, using the authority and resources of the federal government, in which some can reap enormous profits at the expense of the tax-paying American public.

This truth revealed itself with crystal clarity last July when Erica L. Green and Stacey Cowley reported for The New York Times the substantial depth of complicity of DeVos’s Education Department in supporting the fraudulent for–profit Dream Center Education Holdings, a subsidiary of Los Angeles mega-church that was allowed to buy out the collapsing for-profit Argosy University and the Art Institutes chain.

First, the Times underscored the fact that Dream Center had no experience in higher education when it received the blessing of DeVos’ department to buy the troubled for-profit chains.

Second, we learn that the head of higher education policy for the department, Diane Auer Jones, a former executive and lobbyist for for-profit colleges, was pulling strings to help the colleges earn back accreditation, while Dream Center held back the truth from students who were paying tuition, often with federal funding from tax-payers, that the school did not have accreditation and thus the credits for which they were paying were worthless.

When finally Dream Center closed the doors on its institutions, students were left holding the bag, having paid tuition to an institution that could not grant them a degree.

Obviously, DeVos’ leadership enabled incompetence and greed, mirroring Trump’s presidency.

What is clear, though, is that the current administration not only does not value public education as serving the public good but that it simply doesn’t value serving the public good anyway.

The Trump administration is interested only in serving the private interests of the few at the expense of the American public majority.

Buttigieg makes clear that in the 2020 election, much hangs in the balance when it comes to serving the nation’s children through public education.