Trump's Education Pick: Privatization Without Accountability

Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to be United States Secretary of Education, and her public record is long. DeVos has been a fixture in GOP politics for decades, while her family's financial largesse has supported the conservative movement since the 1970s.

DeVos was the chairwoman of the Michigan Republican party in the 1990s, and the easiest way to intuit DeVos’s approach to governance is through examining Michigan education policy, where she has been an instrumental player for a generation. As Kevin Carey wrote in The New York Times:

Working primarily in Michigan, Ms. DeVos has been a strong advocate of vouchers, and her charter work has often focused on making charter schools as private as possible … In her home state, Detroit’s laissez-faire choice policies have led to a wild west of cutthroat competition and poor academic results

Whereas the majority of charter schools nationally are, by law, not-for-profit institutions, DeVos fought hard to proliferate for-profit charters in Michigan. The morass that Carey describes has elicited disavowal from critical corners of the charter commentariat. Robin Lake and her colleagues wrote in Education Next last year:

Even Michigan charter advocates have trouble defending the overall state of charter quality. Many told us there were too many low-performing charter schools in Detroit … Detroit is a powerful illustration of what happens when no one takes responsibility for the entire system of publicly supported schools in a city. Parents struggle to navigate their many, mostly low-performing options, and providers face at best weak incentives to improve academic quality. As a result, large numbers of failing district and charter schools continue to operate.

Choice without accountability is a recipe for a race to the bottom. As Harvard economist Joshua S. Goodman notes, much of what passes for free market ideology suffers from a misunderstanding of markets.

This ethos of privatization-sans-accountability undergirds the nascent Trump administration’s approach to other domains of public policy, including infrastructure and healthcare. There are reasons to worry.

A Loose Approach to Federal Funds

Steering federal education money to private industry was a centerpiece of the Bush administration’s approach to federal education policy, echoing DeVos's Michigan approach. Bush’s education department cleaved off large portions of “Title 1”, requiring that districts set federal money aside for “supplemental education service” providers. That endeavor inflated a multi-billion-dollar tutoring industry, marked by no accountability and predictable "fraud and corruption." It’s hard to believe that an unaccountable voucher system – with even more money and outcomes at stake – would be any better under President Trump.

Political Problems for the Reform Coalition

From a political standpoint, ditching accountability could break the education reform coalition. Since the 1980s, the education reform project has involved mutual tolerance among uncomfortable bedfellows. Technocratic lefties who were interested in civil rights, but frustrated by the intransigence of both management and labor interests, dealt with market-enthusiastic Republicans to overcome entrenched politics. Trump’s odious personal bigotry has made that relationship more tenuous; if Trump and DeVos jettison accountability, while pursuing massive privatization through voucher schemes, reform-minded Democrats have little incentive to stay at the table. Democrats who decide to collaborate with President Trump, even if they’re looking to consume the table scraps he throws at charter schools, will look foolish kowtowing to a bigoted administration.

Enabling Education Policy Double-Speak

The DeVos appointment also shines a light on the flawed logic of defending bad education policy on the basis that "it’s for the kids.” DeVos and her biggest political ally, Governor Rick Snyder, have wrapped their choice-sans-accountability reforms in rhetoric about fighting for children, while the state’s actions on education, and other civic issues, have done little for actual families and children. Both the right and the left use this rhetorical trick to defend bad ideas.

Consider Flint, where the schools are a mess, and the children, most of whom are Black, haven’t had clean water in almost two years. The state ought to be held liable, some argue criminally, for the water crisis, but because the Governor pursued privatization without accountability on infrastructure, the state continues to shirk responsibility while pointing fingers at private water companies.  It’s hard to make the case that your administration’s market-friendly reforms will help children when a real-time human rights crisis plays out on American soil; if officials in the state of Michigan really cared about “the kids,” they would have solved the Flint crisis, rather than pointing fingers. The Flint debacle makes a mockery of the idea that privatization is a panacea for the inefficiencies of the public sector.

Ramifications Beyond Education

When DeVos was the chairwoman of the Michigan Republican party, she blamed Michigan’s economic woes on “high wages.” I’m not an economist, but I dare you to find a working class voter of any racial makeup who thinks that high wages are the biggest problem for struggling families. DeVos's statement reveals the great contradiction of the Trump governance philosophy. Trump's campaign drove a racial wedge between voters, on the promise that he would restore economic prosperity to communities set adrift by the disappearance of the industrial age economy. Fomenting racial division is the oldest play in the American electoral playbook, and it worked this time. Appealing to White economic nationalism was the only way for a New York billionaire to assemble an electoral majority predicated on a populist message. That Trump's early appointments are plutocrats and White nationalists shows that the messaging around economic vulnerability was a ploy and not a promise.

DeVos’s ideology and track record offer clear signals about hers and the president-elect’s governing philosophy. That ideology, coupled with the president-elect's personal bigotry, is a recipe for further marginalizing our country's most vulnerable communities. Democratic school improvement activists should ensure that accountability doesn’t become a casualty of the Trump-DeVos education regime.