Opinion: Betsy DeVos’ Uses Pandemic to Intensify GOP Assault on States

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has fit right in with the Trump administration, treating her government position as opportunity to enrich herself and serve her own narrow ideological interests at taxpayer expense.

Given her role in supporting (or not) the public school systems on which the majority of American families depend to educate their children, she isn’t just funding her own interests at taxpayer expense, but even more insidiously at the expense of the well-being and cultivation of the nation’s children.

And not even just the nation’s children—she has repeatedly undermined, in fraudulent ways, the efforts of hardworking adults to earn a college degree.

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In fact, last fall, Federal Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim held DeVos in contempt of court for having refused to cease and desist from hounding defrauded students to repay loans from corrupt for-profit colleges. DeVos, Judge Kim determined, had broken the law in reversing Obama-era legislation enabling students swindled by fraudulent for-profit to qualify for loan forgiveness.

She spoke with disdain about these students simply seeking “free money.” She wanted those loans paid.  Why? Well, her motives became even clearer when last December she advocated for spinning of the Department of Education’s Federal  Student Aid office into a stand-alone agency.

Again, why?

As The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, explained, “This very much appears to be a Betsy DeVos scheme to block the next president from unilaterally forgiving federal student debt, which she is well aware a president could do without Congress. The DeVos family is heavily invested in the student loan industry and this is just flat-out corruption.”

DeVos’s machinations, however, should not be understood as unique to her. They need to be understood as part and parcel of a larger Republican assault on the public sphere itself, on government and particularly state governments, which the GOP would prefer to starve to death, letting it wither away in favor of enabling a private sector to control the nation’s resources and decision-making.

The brewing fight over the $3 trillion relief package the House just passed will largely be informed, as I’ve written about earlier for PoliticusUsa (here and here), by the GOP’s desire to support state governments, particularly in blue states.  As Mitch McConnell has stated directly, he would prefer states to go bankrupt. What he doesn’t say directly is that states declaring bankruptcy, because the process is overseen by federal courts, forego control of their budgets to the federal courts, largely stocked with Republican judges, who then decide spending priorities, giving them the ability to slash public funding.

The recent $2.2 trillion relief package passed by Congress to address the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, containing aid for school systems and higher education, has given DeVos avaricious hands access to billions of dollars; and in typical fashion she is distributing it not to serve as optimally as possible the nation’s public school systems and public institutions of higher education. Rather she is busy funneling a good portion of the money to private institutions and also creating micro-grants that function like vouchers, enabling families to use public dollars to pay tuition at private and parochial schools, according to Erica L. Green’s reporting for The New York Times.

According to Green:

Ms. DeVos has used $180 million of those dollars to encourage states to create “microgrants” that parents of elementary and secondary school students can use to pay for educational services, including private school tuition. She has directed school districts to share millions of dollars designated for low-income students with wealthy private schools.

When it comes to funding for higher education, designed primarily to help struggling public institutions, DeVos has directed much of that money to small private or religious colleges regardless of need.  Nearly a half million dollars was initially made available to The Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential, a private institution in Wisconsin whose website homepage features above all its defense against being identified as a cult, in addition to other legal defenses against state licensure agencies.  Wright did, in fact, turn down this funding.

But this pandemic corruption is not new.  It is part of a longstanding Republican assault on state’s seeking to support the public sphere.

Remember Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s Kansas back in 2016, when the school year was shortened due to revenue shortfalls attributable to his massive corporate tax cuts.  It was clear that these Republican fiscal and tax policies do not beenfit the economic health of these states or create a higher quality of life. Brownback’s cuts to education were so egregious that they were deemed unconstitutional by the state’s supreme court. Bobby Jindal wreaked similar havoc in Louisiana, granting massive tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations,leaving the state in economic chaos and facing massive cuts to education and basic social services.

In Illinois in 2016, former Republican Governor Jim Edgar, who campaigned for Bruce Rauner, expressed buyer’s remorse and was roundly critical of Rauner’s holding the state hostage in seeking the union-busting, anti-working-class legislation he wanted passed by the legislature. Edgar indicted his venture capitalist mentality in trying to run the state like one of his businesses: “He does not come from government. He doesn’t even really come from mainstream business. He comes from (being an) entrepreneur where you buy a business, you tear it apart and you sell it. … I don’t think you’re going to tear apart the state and sell it. He might want to, but you can’t do that.”

Of course, tearing apart and selling states seems to be Republicans have in mind.

Clearly, effective governing and public policy must address the health and quality of living conditions for the working people of any state to ensure and foster the health of the state’s local economy and to attract citizens.

What is also clear is that the contemporary GOP has given up on governing and instead dedicated itself to the rapacious agenda of more aggressively continuing the re-distribution of wealth to the top at the expense of working and taxpaying citizens.

The behavior of DeVos and the entire GOP is aimed at exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to intensify this assault on states, on the public sphere, which is above all an attack on the American people.

This essay has been corrected to indicate that Wright Graduate University did not accept any of the money DeVos made available to them. I am following the correction The New York Times made on its article: “An earlier version of this article misstated that a school received funding from the Education Department. The Wright Graduate University for the Realization of Human Potential was allocated about $495,000, but it did not claim it.”