In the last two weeks Donald Trump has backtracked, charmed, fudged, modified, and hedged on positions he took during his campaign for president. Some critics, like the New York Times, even start to hope a Trump presidency might not be as bad as they initially feared. Trump will probably never "build the wall" and Hillary seems to be safe from criminal prosecution. But for children and schools in the United States the situation looks worse than expected as Trump quickly moved with plans to tear apart public education in this country. It is going to be a long and difficult fight to try to stop him.
During the campaign, Candidate Trump endorsed a vastly expanded "charter school" system and pledged to divert $20 billion in federal funds away from public schools. It would end up financing Southern segregation academies, religious schools, and private and for-profit ventures. To do this Trump was going to tie federal dollars to individual children, so wherever they went, the dollars would follow.
Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education could hardly be worse. Right-wing billionaire Elizabeth "Betsy" DeVos has spent decades and millions of dollars in campaigns to privatize, defund, and destroy public education in her home state of Michigan and in the United States. Lily Eskelsen García, President of the National Education Association declared "By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators, and communities."
As with most of Trump's ill-conceived promises, his education proposals are rooted in contempt for reality.
DeVos is a product of Christian education and she and her family members are involved across-the-board in right-wing activities including anti-gay marriage efforts and covert for-profit military operations. DeVos never worked in public education in any capacity and her children all attended Christian academies.
Much of DeVos' money comes via her husband who inherited the Amway health and beauty products company. DeVos personally was chairwoman of the board of Alliance for School Choice and is head of the the All Children Matter political action committee that she and her husband founded to promote school vouchers, tax credits to businesses that give private school scholarships, and candidates who support these causes. DeVos money also goes to back Republican candidates who are opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. The DeVos family donated almost seven million dollars to one anti-choice group alone and $500,000 to the anti-marriage equality organization National Organization for Marriage.
In 2000, DeVos and her husband pushed for a ballot measure in Michigan that would have written vouchers into the state Constitution. When it was rejected by voters, they switched their efforts to backing pro-voucher candidates for the state legislature.
As with most of Trump's ill-conceived promises, his education proposals are rooted in contempt for reality. He does not care about evidence from existing programs that they are bad ideas or seem to have any understanding of the disruptive impact this would have on the education of children. For-profit trade schools and "colleges" have been leeching off of public dollars for years while leaving students, especially veterans, with no marketable skills and in heavy debt. Just last week Donald Trump agreed to pay $25 million to students cheated out of tuition dollars by his Trump University.
Unable to attract sufficient federal subsidies, at least until now, for-profit charters have been going out of business. In 2007, for-profit management companies ran almost half of charter schools that were part of chains or larger networks. By 2010, it declined to 37 percent, and it kept on declining as legitimate businesses, like Edison, left the industry. Charter school advocates see this as just part of the process of bring free-market business values to education. But meanwhile thousands, maybe millions of children, are deprived or an education as these schools fail or disappear.
The devastating nature of Trump's plans and DeVos' destructive influence, and the dystopian future of education in this country if their plans are implemented, are already in place in cities like Detroit. Michigan, partly because of DeVos, bit the charter school lore hook, line, and sinker. It bet choice and competition would improve public schools. Instead, in Detroit and other cities it got failure and chaos.
Michigan's charter school reform revolution dates back to 1993 when a "free market" governor pushed through a state law permitting charter schools. Michigan allowed public school districts, community colleges, universities, other non-profit groups, and private for-profit companies to run the charters and basically said they could run anyway they wanted to with almost no oversight.
For-profit companies saw a potential bonanza and now operate about 80 percent of the state's charter schools. Michigan sends $1 billion in education funding to charters annually and Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids are each on the list of the cities with the largest percentage of children attending charter schools. The edu-companies also became major lobbyists for the state's ever expanding charter system and Republican candidates for office. This is when Betsy DeVos emerged on the scene as a major champion of charter schools. As a result of efforts by DeVos and the charter companies, although Michigan had nearly 220,000 fewer students in 2015 than it had in 2003, it had more than 100 new charter schools.
According to a 2015 report by New York Times education reporter Kate Zernike, between 2010 and 2015 the combination of "divisive politics, "educational ideology," and "a scramble for money," over 1.1 billion state tax dollars go to Michigan charter schools, "produced a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States." National charter school companies moved into Detroit promising impoverished residents school miracles. Zernike found that "the unchecked growth of charters ... created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation's poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles." Schools were "cannibalized" as they fought "so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives." Scott Romney, a board member of the civic group New Detroit, charged that as a result of the reforms, "we've had a total and complete collapse of education in this city." A federal review of applications for Michigan charter schools discovered an "unreasonably high" number of charters among Michigan's worst-performing schools. But that did not stop the flood. A cap on the number of charter schools in the state was lifted in 2011. Almost immediately, 24 new charter schools opened in Detroit and 18 charters, including those with dismal performance records, expanded operations.
The Network for Public Education is organizing an online letter writing campaign pressuring United States Senators to block DeVos' appointment. Click here to sign. I will be joining the January 21, 2017 Women's March on Washington. My poster will read "Defend Public Education - Stop Trump and DeVos." I hope to see everybody there.