On Betsy DeVos, Neoliberalism, and the Reason Schools Fail

By Katie Kirchner |

During her confirmation hearing earlier this week, Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, was asked by Senator Patty Murray to make a commitment that she would not cut funding or work toward privatization of schools. DeVos responded by saying:

I look forward, if confirmed, to working with you to talk about how we address the needs of all parents and all students. We acknowledge today that not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them. I’m hopeful that we can work together to find common ground and ways that we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them.

Through the coded language of the school reform movement—phrases like “failing schools,” “empowerment,” and “choice”—she essentially confirmed that she’ll be working to privatize public education. These words are all markers for privatization in the education space in the same way that “freedom,” “choice,” and “individual rights” are used by supporters of trickle-down economic theories.

This is just one of the ways in which DeVos’s views on education fall in line with neoliberal economic and social policy. In the same way that neoliberal policymakers believe government should step back and let markets rule, neoliberal education policy turns public education into a private market through a system of “rollbacks.” Funding and other forms of support for public schools gets pulled back, setting up the institutions to fail and “proving” to policymakers and the public that market-based solutions would serve students better. (For more on this, and other ideas covered in this post, I recommend Pauline Lipman’s The New Political Economy of Urban Education.)

In some cases, the failure of our public institutions is real. But that failure is not always organic; often, policymakers orchestrate it through disinvestment in order to advance private solutions that generate profits in places where markets did not formerly exist. In the field of education, this has resulted in the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs that funnel public money into privately owned and/or operated institutions.

Creating these new markets presents an illusion of agency for parents and students in many communities. Despite data that proves, repeatedly, that charter schools do not outperform public schools (even with increased disinvestment and funding cuts), charter schools are marketed as a choice to advance your child’s position in society, getting them “out” of their failing public institution. This market-like structure has shifted the conversation from one about real structural barriers—things like racism, segregation, sexism, and violence—to one about personal choice, individuality, and responsibility. The pathway to success, then, isn’t through policy that repairs century-long inequality and disinvestment in communities, but requires personally navigating a complex system to access the best school for your child.

On a macro level, it’s obviously not as straightforward. There are real consequences for people’s lives when the education landscape of communities changes. For example, when there are two schools in a community and one is “failing” and one is not, the obvious pathway for parents is to do whatever they can to get their child the best possible education. School closure means the removal of an anchor institution in a community and upheaval in the routine and lives of students.

But what we need to recognize as a country is that private institutions do not automatically serve to advance the public good more effectively or efficiently than public ones. Charter schools and school vouchers are not inherently the answer to the problems facing public education. During the next four years, when we’re going to have an administration that that sets up our public institutions to fail and presents private options as the necessary and obvious solution, that is especially important to remember.

We need to cut through the messaging that allows our elected and appointed officials to orchestrate the failure of public schools. And, for better or for worse, it’s not only officials in the Trump administration, but Democrats and progressives in our cities and towns who also align with the reformer agenda. People like D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, appointed by Democratic administrations, are among the political “friends” that we can pressure.

We also need to be aware of the other areas in which privatization will be presented as the best pathway forward over the next four years. Some key examples that the Trump administration has already talked about include private prisons and student loans. As the administration rolls back public investment in these institutions to prove its case for private expansion, we have to remember that markets are not always the “common sense” answer, nor are they the only answer. And we need to be clear that a debate about failing public institutions in 2017 starts after years of disinvestment; what would public institutions look like if we hadn’t divested public support from them for the past 20 years? What could they look like if we reinvest support in them for the next 20? That needs to be the starting point of conversations for progressives as we move into 2017 and beyond.

Katie Kirchner is a Roosevelt Program Associate.