Opinion: DeVos and McConnell Fuel Trump’s Destruction of Public Sphere, Education to Serve Private Interests

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voiced strong opposition to providing any federal relief funding to assist state and local governments losing revenues hand-over-fist and facing mountains of unforeseen expenditures due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s embattled Secretary of Education, has been engaged in ongoing litigation because of her efforts to reverse Obama-era student loan forgiveness programs developed primarily to protect students against the fraudulent and predatory behaviors of for-profit higher education institutions. DeVos’ vigorous advocacy for for-profit education corporations, exemplified in her efforts to make it more difficult for defrauded students to qualify for loan forgiveness, has participated in fleecing American degree-seeking students of millions of dollars while they leaving them without diplomas, as many of these for-profit institutions, like Trump’s own fraudulent university, have gone belly up. 

The DeVos family, of course, is heavily invested in the student loan industry.  This element of corruption aside, however, the effect of this corruption is to make it harder for students to access higher education to advance their lives individually and to enable them also to contribute in their most effective ways to our larger social project.

She and Trump are not just interested in making it harder for Americans to access higher education; they want to defund all public education, as we saw recently when DeVos and the Trump administration cut funding to rural public schools, a brash move given rural populations are considered a key constituent of Trump’s United Base of America.

Why open this piece with these two perhaps seemingly disconnected episodes?

Well, they are really of one piece, tied together in their twinned effort to execute Trump’s and the GOP’s agenda of dismantling the public sphere and turning it over the private interests.

It is important we see these actions—and we could add many more—as part of a piece to understand that McConnell’s opposition to providing financial assistance to states crushed by the demands and devastation of the coronavirus is not some momentary hesitation linked to exigencies of the current situation but rather consistent with his and the GOP’s longstanding attack on public workers (typically with strong unions), public pension systems, and the public sphere itself.

David Frum, writing in The Atlantic, has explained in great detail why Mitch McConnell is suggesting states declare bankruptcy, even though states are legally prohibited currently from doing so currently, as an alternative to being bailed out by the federal government in the same way businesses and individuals are.  Bankruptcy proceedings take place in federal courts, and anyone the least bit aware of Republican strategy knows that their plan has been to stack the federal benches with deep Republican red justices, appointed for life. This way, Republicans can effectively seize control of the budgets of stalwart blue states, determining their spending priorities and also acquiring the power to terminate union contracts and pension obligations.

The effect, of course, most immediately should McConnell’s opposition to providing relief to states prevail in the Senate, will be to inflict severe and unnecessary harm on American families and children by making it more difficult, even impossible, for states to properly fund public education.

But, of course, Trump and the GOP in general want nothing more than to eliminate the public education system. Just recall Trump’s State of the Union address early last February when he complained that American children are trapped in “failing government schools.” This polemic was an assault on public education, designed not to pave the way to provide additional support and resources for public school systems but to promote the passage of the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, legislation proposed by Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz and endorsed by DeVos.  This act would provide $5 billion worth of annual tax credits to encourage individuals and businesses to donate to nonprofit scholarship funds. Families could apply for these funds to send their children to private and religious schools or potentially other kinds of vocational training or certification.

And, as we have seen with the coronavirus, Trump’s disdain for the public sphere extends beyond public education to the very public health agencies that could have helped us manage this pandemic.

Since assuming office, Trump and his administration have in fact been dismantling the very government programs and agencies charged with addressing global health crises.

In 2018, for example, because it was running out of money, the CDC had to eliminate 80% of its effort to prevent the outbreaks of global disease, narrowing the number of countries on which it focused its efforts from 49 to just 10.

Moreover, the Trump administration undertook a series of actions to dismantle government-spending programs aimed at combating the spread of global diseases. For example, the unit of global health security in the National Security Council was shut down, national health spending was reduced by $15 billion, the U.S. government’s Complex Crises Fund of $30 million was eliminated, and more.  Reporting for Foreign Policy, Laurie Garrett asserts that the U.S. has never been less prepared for a pandemic, pointing out, among other factual developments, that in 2018 Trump “fired the government’s entire pandemic response chain of command, including the White House management infrastructure.”

One could go on citing the ways the Trump administration has actively undermined and underfunded the abilities of our public agencies to secure the nation’s public health in a way Americans have come to rely on, whether it is always visible to us or not.

But we need to recognize Trump’s dangerous behavior in relation to public health in this instance as part of a larger agenda of eliminating the public sphere, the multitude of tax-payer funded public agencies that serve the myriad needs of the American people, from health care to education to national parks to infrastructure to energy.

And, of course, McConnell, DeVos, and the lion’s share of the GOP are agents in this longstanding agenda.