The African American Roots of Betsy DeVos’s Education Platform

By | January 19, 2017

In recent weeks, pundits and scholars have bemoaned the privatization of public education that is likely to occur if Betsy DeVos is confirmed as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education. Democracy Now!, for instance, billed DeVos as “Public (School) Enemy No. 1.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement described her as “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education.” At her confirmation hearing Tuesday evening, Democratic senators grilled her about her track record promoting private control of public education and demanded, to little avail, that she would commit to keeping public-school dollars in public schools.

To numerous critics, DeVos’s appointment threatens the integrity of public education that still remains.

DeVos is deeply committed to providing alternatives to public education through school choice, a theory of education reform that rests upon a belief that public education will improve if parents are provided a choice in schools. To implement this in Michigan, DeVos advocated for school vouchers, which families can use to attend private schools. She also supports charter schools—publicly funded yet privately governed institutions. According to the education-policy analyst and historian Diane Ravitch, vouchers and charter schools, particularly under Trump, are part of the privatization movement that seeks to dismantle public education by turning it over to for-profit corporations.

Privatization skeptics and advocates alike overlook the historical nuances of the prospective administration’s support of vouchers, charter schools, and other school-choice reforms that remove schools from public oversight. An analysis of American history indicates that the use of private means was a critical aspect to ensure quality education for African Americans legally excluded from access to public institutions. The volatile role that privatization played in race relations is noteworthy because it underpinned the establishment of schools for students of color while it also informed the creation of alternatives to desegregation and the Republican narrative on the failure of public schools. (The Atlantic)

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