The Empress Has No Clothes

The Empress Has No Clothes
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Co-authored by T. Jameson Brewer (@tjamesonbrewer) and Mitchell Robinson (@mrobmsu)

History was made this Tuesday. For the first time in our nation's history, a high-level Cabinet member was confirmed not by a majority vote in the Senate, but rather, by way of a tie-break vote cast by the President of the Senate (the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence). The other historical mile-marker achieved was the confirmation of one of the least qualified individuals to ever hold the position of Secretary of Education. Indeed, Betsy DeVos - now Secretary DeVos - has never held a position in education, or any position for that matter.

All of the Democrats in the Senate and two Republicans voted to reject DeVos' confirmation. And while there has been a plethora of press and conversation surrounding DeVos' nomination, her disastrous confirmation hearings, her financial conflicts of interest, and the push to block her confirmation, what has stood out the most, in our view, is the real rationale behind the detraction - particularly from those who have no qualms about her ideological agenda of privatization and marketization.

While some have opined that Democrats' opposition to DeVos stems from their allegiance to government employees (e.g., teachers) and their unions, that argument doesn't hold water. If Democrats were making their decision on DeVos from the point-of-view of what would be peering out of union donor pockets, then we would see consistent opposition to all of the manifestations of school privatization: charters, vouchers, and alternative certification for teachers - those things that unions typically don't support. But that isn't the reality here. Democratic politicians, by and large, are staunch proponents of privatization and marketization in public schools. Corey Booker, one of DeVos' loudest detractors in the Senate, founded the Newark Charter School Fund and has a documented history of supporting charters and school vouchers. In fact, 6 of the 10 Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee (HELP) committee attended or have their own children/grandchildren in charter schools or private schools.

So, while DeVos' nomination, and subsequent confirmation, was and is greeted with resounding support from privatization-pushers like The 74 Million, her confirmation was tumultuous not because of her inexperience or ideology, but rather because she unwittingly exposed the actual rationale(s) behind the ideology of privatization and marketization; that is, the privileging of profits over social justice and educational equity. While Democrats and "progressives" have a long history of supporting charter schools, vouchers, and alternative teacher certification programs, they've done so from the perspective of a false narrative of equality. That is, reform proponents and passive school reform supporters have willingly bought into the myth of the "failing school" and the "bad teacher," and have sought reforms - rather, they all too willingly bought into a solution in need of a problem: privatization and the elevation of the individual over the collective good. As such, when then-nominee DeVos made it abundantly clear that charter schools and private schools should not be held to the same levels of accountability and standards when compared to public schools; that charters and private schools can, and should, take money away from public schools - under the guise that such economic competition will improve outcomes - and that such a national schooling environment might exacerbate social and racial inequalities, those who have a history of supporting school choice suddenly became life-long advocates for traditional public education. But, in reality, charters and vouchers have always done exactly that: redistributed money away from traditional public schools to private control and exacerbated racial and economic segregation - all while failing to provide better academic results. It seems that when such reforms ignore decades of data and are stripped of their pseudo-social justice narrative that the reforms become less palatable and are seemingly undemocratic...precisely because they are.

In semblance of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tail of a King who, lest he admit that he wasn't wise, continues to strut down the busy streets, stark naked, believing that those who ridicule and critique him are, simply, not wise enough to see the wonder of his robes; Betsy DeVos strutted into her Senate confirmation hearings bearing all - all that is ideological. And therein lies the problem. DeVos' only experience of work in her life is pushing for more charters and more vouchers. She's never interviewed for a real job; never had actual co-workers, or a boss; and has never shown any demonstrable interest in or concern for public education.

So, it was a shocking revelation when fellow billionaire and market-oriented school-reform maven Eli Broad made a public statement in opposition to DeVos. What was he opposing? Certainly Broad would not split hairs about the nature of, or the ideology behind, pushing for more charters, more vouchers, or more alternative certification of teachers. So, we find it curious that those who have spent decades pushing for these very aspects of DeVos' policy agenda are now suddenly distancing themselves from her and her views. DeVos' agenda of charter and voucher proliferation is exactly what market-oriented reformers like Broad and Democrats for Education Reform have always wanted. Their every dream is now tantalizingly within reach--all they need to do is accept The Empress in all her naked glory.

The reformers' fear now, in our view, is that DeVos is pulling back the curtain on the true foundations of the reform agenda, and that the public won't like what they are about to see. The false narrative of pseudo-social justice rhetoric upon which the reformers' agenda has been so carefully constructed is about to come crashing down, knocked askew by the embarrassing antics of the dancing (grizzly) bear that ran amok at DeVos' confirmation hearing performance.

Betsy DeVos doesn't pretend to want an academic enterprise that requires equitable opportunities and outcomes for all learners. She's fine with parents of children with special needs signing off on their right to special education services in exchange for private school vouchers. She doesn't know that enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would be under her purview as Secretary of Education, and what's worse, doesn't seem to care. She doesn't know the difference between growth and proficiency. She doesn't believe that all schools that accept federal dollars should be held to the same accountability standards and expectations. And she's all for public tax revenues going to subsidize religious schools.

DeVos' agenda has always been the reformers' reality, but has been shrouded in faux social justice trappings so as to make it seem altruistic. In fact, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - a long time proponent of using school vouchers as a means of social and economic justice--admitted in 2015 that vouchers have, and always were, meant for Whites to flee post-Brown integration - and that's exactly what has happened. But, such reforms never have had true equality at their core and, in fact, require winners and losers (e.g., market competition). The problem is that competition and choice will never solve the problems in education that have been created by...competition and choice.

Now that the curtain has been pulled back, how will progressives position themselves within the landscape of education reform? Democratic politicians, especially at the national level, have long supported charters and vouchers, and largely until the DeVos hearings, willingly went along with the belief that the Emperor's robe was beautiful and purposeful. Now that they've been forced to see the realities and requirements of privatization and marketization, the illusion of the robes has disappeared. How many of them, how many of us, will continue to look upon our new Empress and marvel at her nonexistent robes, and then begin the real work of ensuring that we renew our country's commitment to the democratic institution of public schools?

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