The Long Game of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

In Education On

By Carol Burris

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is not always confused by the facts, such as when she said that historically black colleges and universities were “pioneers of school choice,” or that a school in Montana probably had a gun to protect itself from “potential grizzlies.” Her recent speech at this year’s convening of the American Federation for Children was no exception.

If you are not familiar with the American Federation for Children, you should be. SourceWatch tells you all that you need to know:

The American Federation for Children (AFC) is a conservative 501(c)(4) dark money group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues. It is the 501(c)(4) arm of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit group the Alliance for School Choice.[1] The group was organized and is funded by the billionaire DeVos family, who are the heirs to the Amway fortune.

Yes, DeVos was right at home speaking to the organization.

In the speech, DeVos seemed to be trying to mask her hard-right agenda by sounding post-partisan, with a blue heart buried deep in a Republican red chest. She portrayed her thinking as progressive, and those who defend public schools as the enemies of children and worse. She skillfully wove this theme throughout the speech — calling those who resist her agenda “flat-Earthers.”

She told her audience that a Democrat advocated for the first voucher program in the nation. Annette Polly Williams, a longtime Democratic state legislator in Wisconsin, “bucked the system for the kids she loved,” DeVos said.

What DeVos left out is the inconvenient detail that Williams, who was black, later saw vouchers for what they were — an escape hatch from public schools that allowed wealthier, white children to attend private schools.

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Like It or Not, Betsy DeVos Has Made a Mark In Six Months as Education Secretary

Perhaps most important, being education secretary has given DeVos a national platform to mainstream her school choice ideas, which once were considered radical. And her repeated attacks on the federal government have laid the groundwork for potential future efforts to abolish the Education Department, a long-cherished goal of many conservatives. Trump himself, during the 2016 campaign, voiced support for dismantling or shrinking the department.

What public officials say matters. President Ronald Reagan famously said, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” and his consistent portrayal of the U.S. government as an impediment to solving problems affected politics and the view many Americans hold of the role of public officials.

In the same way, DeVos’s denunciations of the federal government and her refusal to make even a tepid call-out to the value of the public education system, can’t help but have an effect on the way some Americans feel about their neighborhood public schools, which educate the vast majority of the country’s schoolchildren. Arne Duncan, education secretary under President Barack Obama, was a supporter of charter schools (though not vouchers) but still spoke about the need for — and the aspirational goals of — public education. Margaret Spellings, education secretary under President George W. Bush, also defended public education and the role of the U.S. Education Department.

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