Education

Betsy DeVos Shows She's Willing to Smear Public School Defenders in the Crudest Ways Possible

Polly Williams saw vouchers become a gateway to send whites to private school.

Photo Credit: www.federationforchildren.org/advocacy/

In many ways, Secretary of Education DeVos is Trump lite.  Like her boss, she is never confused by the facts; just more restrained on the bombast. Her May 22 speech at this year’s convening of the American Federation for Children was no exception.

In that speech, DeVos attempted to mask her hard-right agenda by pretending to be post-partisan, pitting those who support vouchers as heroes and those who are against them villains. A woman who rejects evolution and whose family contributes to organizations that believe you can “pray away the gay,” went on to refer to those who believe in public schools as “flat-earthers.”

You can perhaps excuse her silliness, from nonsensical statements about grizzlies to absurdities like the above, but there is a line of decency that DeVos crossed in that speech, however, for which she should truly be taken to task—the distortion of the legacy of a now deceased, black councilwoman from Milwaukee, Polly Williams.

De Vos began her speech before the AFC, an organization she and her husband founded and funded, by telling the audience that a Democrat advocated for the first voucher program in the nation. City councilwoman Polly Williams, “bucked the system for the kids she loved,” said DeVos. That part is true. But what De Vos left out is the inconvenient detail that Williams, later saw vouchers for what they were—an escape hatch from public schools that allowed wealthier, white children to attend private schools.

In her 2015 research report entitled, Opening Pandora’s Box: Polly Williams Doomed Partnership with the Education Privatization Movement, author Rachel Tabachnick does a masterful job telling the Polly Williams story. She describes Williams as an idealist who was willing to work with conservative groups in order to allow Milwaukee’s poor children to attend black independent schools. Williams saw vouchers as a limited program to give some choice to disadvantaged kids, while supporting the independent schools she believed in. But her opportunistic allies had a more ambitious plan. A program for poor kids, for them, was merely the camel’s nose under the tent.

As Tabachnick tells us, then Republican Governor Tommy Thompson had assured voucher advocates that once the program began, it would be expanded. And that is exactly what occurred. Religious school were added. And then the cap on income was raised. Williams withdrew her support for the program, stating, “Eventually, low-income families would be weeded out due to the large volume of families wanting to participate.” Tabachnick tells us she objected to families who could well afford private school getting subsidies, even as funding was reduced for public schools. “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools,” she said.

As Williams spoke out against the program, her former allies took aim. She was denounced by the same folks who had previously put her on the stage of every conservative event, anointing her the “Rosa Parks of vouchers.”

By 2013, a major pro-voucher donor, George Mitchell shamelessly admitted that Polly Williams was used. “Polly was useful to the school choice movement because of her race and party affiliation.” In that same interview, he called her “a racist” and “irrelevant.”

Chicago community activist, Jitu Brown, has long called out the school choice movement’s pretense. Choice, according to Brown, is not about helping children of color, despite the claims of its proponents. Calling school choice “a scam” in segregated neighborhoods, he recently wrote, “Privatizers, such as the Great Lakes Education Project DeVos funded, play three-card monte with the public, utilizing political support, money and slick marketing to hide poor academic returns, increasing racial segregation and widespread corruption.” Explaining the inequities that exist between wealthy and poor communities he goes on to say, “But we understand that imposing failed, top-down corporate education interventions on communities of color is merely the status quo, amplified.”

And that of course, was what Williams came to understand. Vouchers for the poor were the gateway; they were never the goal. That same pattern of starting small and going big repeats itself over and over. ESAs, tax credit scholarships and the like begin with student groups that evoke public sympathy—students with disabilities, low-income kids, the children of parents in the armed forces—but the goal is vouchers for all.

DeVos and her allies are playing the long game. Each legislative season, the selected groups expand and the caps are raised. It happened in Indiana where De Vos spoke, and it is happening in other voucher states as well.

Polly Williams died in November of 2014. Shortly following her death, Tabachnick tells us, she was memorialized as “the mother of school choice.” Who would, with calculation, wait to memorialize her until she could no longer disavow a movement she abandoned? None other than then Chairman of the American Federation for Children, and now Secretary of Education, Mrs. Betsy De Vos.

Vouchers did not start with Polly Williams. They began in the South after the Supreme Court's 1954 pro-integration ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, to support segregation academies. DeVos knows this full well. Yet time and again, she “pins” them on a woman who passed away--knowing full well that woman became its outspoken opponent. That is cynical opportunism at its worst.

 

Carol Burris is the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education and Network for Public Education Action. She is also a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center. Carol served as principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre NY from 2000 to 2015.

 

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