The Trump administration hasn’t been shy about its contempt for public education. The president himself once said he’d close the Department of Education. Billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a proud advocate for charter schools and vouchers, has compared schools to Uber and cell phone companies.
But what they really think might best be summed up by remarks made by current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson back in 2014:
“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation,” the former Exxon Mobil CEO said in a panel discussion. “Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?”
Tillerson’s views reveal what the push for “school choice” in places like Detroit and Los Angeles—which is electing new school board members next week—is really about. Unregulated charter schools and vouchers allow private groups to control taxpayer dollars and—in the worst cases—profit from them. But they also help fulfill a vision of society in which government is run like a business and people—and corporations—are customers.
Tillerson was simply telling the truth: in a market society, students are products to be shaped and molded, not future citizens of a vibrant democracy.
Despite having no governing experience, Trump is eager to make this vision reality. His business attitude makes him a natural privatizer and he’s surrounded himself with free-market ideologues, billionaires, and conservative think tanks bent on downsizing and outsourcing government.
So it makes sense that billionaires and corporate leaders, many of them Trump supporters, are spending big on school choice around the country. Last year, the Walton Family, owners of Walmart, spent nearly $2 million on a failed attempt to deregulate charters in Massachusetts. In Philadelphia, billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffrey Yass, whose organization partnered with DeVos’s American Federation for Children, has funneled tens of millions of dollars around the country to candidates promoting school choice.
In the latest example, a school board race in Los Angeles, the dollar amounts are jaw dropping. In 2015 and 2016, the Walton Family gave over $6 million to pro-charter school organizations now spending big on two candidates running in next week’s election. Between July and December 2016, Doris Fisher, the cofounder of Gap, gave $1.25 million; former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $700,000; and former Los Angeles mayor and Trump supporter Richard Riordan gave $1 million.
That much campaign spending, which has made the race the most expensive in U.S. history, would be alarming anywhere, but it’s especially disturbing in a city where unregulated charter school growth is fueling the public school system’s financial crisis. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is losing an estimated $500 million a year because of students leaving community schools to attend privately operated charters.
Despite all the rhetoric about school choice—on the campaign trail, Trump called it the “new civil rights issue of our time”—it’s not about helping kids. It’s about attacking government and redefining the role of public education and who we are as citizens.
Decisions about public education should be made on behalf of students and the common good, not billionaires and corporations.