Tragic School Bust

June 7, 2017 - American Politics

It takes something truly special to be a standout in the Trump administration, whose members include Rick Perry, Ben Carson and Jeff Sessions. A tacky gold star, then, to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family’s clout (derived from AmWay money) has inflicted her upon America’s students.

DeVos, a major proponent of charter schools and school vouchers (and by extension a major opponent of public schools), received her position by 51-50 vote in the Senate, the first time in history that the vice president’s tiebreaker has been needed to confirm a Cabinet appointee. The DeVos family poured a lot of money into Republican coffers to get the appointment confirmed. Don’t believe me? Let’s check in with one Betsy DeVos on the subject:

“I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” she wrote. “Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return.”

Of course, this all happened months ago. So why discuss her now? Well, DeVos was recently speaking before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education regarding the Trump administration’s budget – specifically its plans to slash billions in public school funding in order to implement voucher programs.

The DeVos vision of education has clear winners and losers – the winners being those who collect the money, and the losers, all too often, being parents and students. Consider the wickedly deregulated charter schools of Michigan, which can open with minimal oversight, close without notice, and generally capitalize on the worst qualities of a choice-based system. Picture 30,000 classroom seats unfilled in the city of Detroit. Imagine gambling on the wrong institution and having a child without a school come October. Imagine sending your child to a school with such low enrollment that essential teaching resources need to be cut to make up the budget shortfalls.

Imagine that, nationwide.

I’m burying the lede, however; we’re not here to discuss how the DeVos family has made a cottage industry out of political corruption in service of their distorted ideal of free market education. After all, it’s not that school choice or vouchers are necessarily poor ideas; it’s just that DeVos and her confederates believe in permitting such oversaturation that the result is less “ocean of possibilities” than it is “algae-clogged fish tank.” Instead, today we’re here to discuss a different element of the Betsy DeVos ideology, one that ties into larger issues with the current Republican government.

Secretary DeVos was asked by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) whether her department’s plan would permit federal funds to go to schools which discriminate against students based on their religion, or which discriminate against LGBT students. She responded with platitudes that her department would not offer funding to any educational institution that defied federal discrimination laws and that discrimination is wrong.

While Merkley did press her on her answer (getting more of the same back for his troubles), he failed to cut through the morass of doublespeak. So today, I’d like to do that for him. Secretary DeVos, the question is whether your department will fund institutions which discriminate against children. It’s a yes or no question, and if the answer was “no,” no reasonable person would say anything but “no.” It follows, then, that if you give any answer other than “no,” it’s the same as answering “yes.” Speaking to federal laws is a way of saying “not those specific types of discrimination,” or in other words an explanation of why the answer is “yes.” So why not demonstrate some basic intellectual honesty and just own up to that truth?

Now, in fairness to Mrs. DeVos, I’m not entirely correct there – there is a reason not to say “no” if that’s the answer, and that reason is to weave in dog whistles for people who want to see children discriminated against. One would think that’s a group that shouldn’t be called out to by a department of the United States government. Indeed, as Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) demonstrated, her dog whistles were quite successful. He took her meaning perfectly – the DeVos Department of Education will not ask institutions to do any better than current federal antidiscrimination laws require, implicitly allowing discrimination against LGBT students.

What Senator Blunt celebrates, however, we should all deplore – the notion of the federal government backing commercial institutions which could legally deprive minors of educational opportunities should sicken anyone. DeVos said that states should have the flexibility to determine rules of admission for private school choice programs, but if private schools have been muscled out of the market, it’s quite plausible that some states could set standards that functionally eliminate an LGBT student’s access to institutional education in that state.

The United States government should not use public money to fund systemic discrimination against children. One would like to think we could all agree on that.

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