Betsy DeVos' Extreme Right-Wing Education Agenda: Report Card for Her First Year

DeVos continues to be painted as an unqualified naif. The truth is much scarier.

In the latest episode of the Have You Heard podcast, AlterNet education contributor Jennifer Berkshire and co-host Jack Schneider examine the DeVos education agenda, one year in. They revisit some of her most controversial statements, including her comparison of public education to food trucks and her infamous hat tip to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Among their key takeaways: while DeVos continues to be painted as an inexperienced naif, she is a profoundly political actor, and deeply involved in the efforts to transform the U.S. along right-wing, libertarian lines.

The following is an edited transcript. Listen to the entire episode.

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Have You Heard: Betsy DeVos is fond of invoking Uber as a model for how public education should be 'disrupted.' What does her fondness for this particular analogy tell us about her larger vision?

Jack Schneider: In remarks DeVos made at the Brookings Institution in the spring, she likened traditional public schools to taxicabs, arguing that “just like the traditional taxi system revolted against ride sharing, the education establishment feel[s] threatened by the rise of school choice.”

What’s so telling about this statement isn’t just the comparison of educating a young person to driving someone from point A to point B. It’s also the implication that there are lots of choices out there. DeVos lists them for us: Uber Pool, Uber X, Lyft Line, Lyft Plus. So far I really only hear two options. If we unpack this analogy about Uber and Lyft what we see is the rise of two dominant for profit providers seeking to gain as much market share working towards as much of a monopoly as either one might be able to get and putting the publicly regulated option taxicabs out of business. Now taxicabs are problematic in many ways but they are publicly regulated in a way that Uber and Lyft are not. And so I think that this is really interesting as a kind of display of her thinking and her ideological agenda.

Have You Heard: One of DeVos’ other go-to lines is a paraphrase of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous 'There is no society' quote. In fact, DeVos cited Thatcher as an idol when she spoke to the ALEC conference last summer.

Jennifer Berkshire: DeVos didn’t mention in that speech that Margaret Thatcher also earned the nickname “milk snatcher” for her decision to eliminate milk in British schools for kids over the age of seven. I heard DeVos make her “there is no education system” argument when I traveled to Northwest Ohio to a school that she visited jointly with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and it really landed like a lead balloon. It doesn't make any sense to people in places like Van Wert, OH, whose schools really bind their communities together, that they are totally on their own.

Have You Heard: DeVos’ controversial statements, like the time she compared schools to food trucks, attracted tons of attention. Anything that went down during her first year in office that should have gotten more scrutiny?

Schneider: The nature of the staffing at the Department of Education really got lost in the shuffle. So staffing has been a big issue across the Trump administration for a couple of reasons. One many departments have been understaffed whether intentionally or through a lack of capacity by the administration. And another issue has been the political nature of appointments. which of course is characteristic of all administrations. But what you see with this administration is the appointment of individuals who’ve got some tie to the industries they’re now supposed to be regulating. Take Carlos Muñiz, who is the nominee to be General Counsel for the Department of Education. As a top aide to Florida's Attorney General, Muñiz helped defend the AG’s  decision to sit out legal action against Trump University.

Berkshire: I think people, including journalists who cover education, continue to miss just how political Betsy DeVos is. For example, one of the most underreported parts of the Betsy DeVos story is the role that she and her extended family played in really delivering that Citizens United Supreme Court case that now allows for unlimited political spending. Just as she believes that parents have an inalienable right to choose a school for their children, DeVos also feels very strongly that wealthy individuals have an inalienable right to spend as much money as they want to determine the course of elections because money is speech. To a major extent, DeVos and her family are responsible for the political landscape that we now find ourselves in.

Listen to the entire episode.

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Jennifer Berkshire writes about the end of public education and co-hosts a biweekly podcast on education in the time of Trump.