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  • April 14th, 2018

READIN’, RITIN’ AND RUIN

By Joel M. Vance

In a recent blog I listed four of the most odious women in the public eye today: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Laura Ingraham, Roseanne Barr and Kellyanne Conway. I was tempted to add Betsy DeVos to the list, but she deserves a spot all her own. The others can be dismissed as individually reprehensible, but Ms. DeVos is not only responsible for herself and her conduct, but also for the future of the nation’s educational system— something that she seems determined to dismantle and destroy.

Her appointment as a cabinet secretary, responsible for education in the United States, was controversial and had to be decided by a tie breaking vote by vice president Mike Pence. Of particular concern was the fact that DeVos has had absolutely no contact with public school education throughout her life. She is a product from grade school through college of private schools and is a strong advocate for offering vouchers so that kids can be shoveled into private institutions, rather than attending public schools. A charter school is not a public school, is not run like one, does not offer the same benefits as public education, and is not subject to the same oversight of school boards, of public input, and of professional educators as are our public schools, funded by taxpayer dollars.

The DeVos family association with education is a checkered one. Her husband has advocated the teaching of creationism in schools, a subject which I thought had been pretty well dismissed by the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was the founder of the fundamentalist Family Research Council which is anti-LGBT, and her mother similarly is an outspoken fundamentalist. The FRC has been termed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It may be a stretch to call FRC a hate group, but it does have a somewhat cloudy history: one founding member hired a male prostitute as a traveling companion and subsequently resigned from the board while Josh Duggar executive director of the group’s nonprofit legislative arm (a lobbyist) resigned after it became public that he had molested five underage girls, including some of his sisters.

None of this has anything directly to do with Betsy DeVos, of course, but it’s only human nature to judge people by the company they keep. We might also consider her brother, Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, USA, a private security company long associated with troublesome allegations over its conduct in Iraq, and more recently his involvement in a clandestine meeting in the Seychelles with a representative of the Russian government, tied to Vladimir Putin.

It is not just public school teachers or people like me, graduates of the public school system, who oppose Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Some 2700 students and alumni of Calvin College from which she graduated and to which her family has given enough money to have two buildings named after them, wrote a letter of protest insisting that Ms. DeVos is unqualified for the cabinet job and should not have it.

She is married to Dick DeVos who once ran for governor of Michigan (he lost). He is the son of the founder of Amway products, and a multimillionaire. One possible reason for him losing his run for governor is that Amway cut 1400 jobs in Michigan and sent them to China.

Education in the United States is in turmoil with teachers in several states walking out to protest both low pay and inadequate working conditions, and students in many high schools are walking out of class to call for stricter gun regulations in the aftermath of far too many school shootings.

Among the most notable teacher walkouts is one in Oklahoma which, at this writing, was in its second week (it ended after nine days). In response to the ardent requests of the striking teachers is a comment by Gary Richardson, a Republican candidate for Oklahoma governor, quoted as saying: “in politics as in life, no one gets everything they want.” Richardson says “Union tactics are less about education and more about pushing a liberal agenda demanding higher taxes and increased government spending”

Read that any way you want, but it appears to me that Oklahoma, which has the second lowest teacher pay in the nation, and where a fifth of the schools in the state are closed one school day a week to save money, has more of a problem with “a conservative agenda” than it does a liberal one—and anyone who cares about public education can only hope that Richardson as in life is one who does not get everything he wants.

Oklahoma, of course, is one of several states where public school teachers are walking out to protest against low pay, poor classroom conditions, and overall lackluster support of public education. West Virginia began the parade of educators quitting the classroom in protest against educational indifference. Since, teachers in both Kentucky and Oklahoma have joined the movement. Arizona is teetering on the edge of a similar walkout. Much of the teacher anger has been fueled by two situations— the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and the Parkland school shooting in Florida.

DeVos’s solution to education problem seems to be to get rid of those pesky public schools and replace them with for-profit charter schools, presumably staffed with teachers who adhew to the conservative mindset—which I suspect would include prayer in schools, barring teaching or discussion of evolution, denial of global warming, decrease in emphasis on science, and generally a return to the Dick and Jane mentality of teaching in the 19th century.

DeVos flatly asserts that in her words “public schools are a dead end.” She and her husband would much rather see tax money diverted to private schools. In other words public education would become private education, supported by taxpayers.

Puerto Rico, the US territory, which already has been devastated by a hurricane, has appointed a Philadelphia native as its education secretary (a business consultant) to the consternation and disapproval of the island’s teachers. Julia Keleher is a Betsy DeVos clone who is being paid a quarter of a million dollars a year—roughly 10 times what the average teacher in Puerto Rico makes— and who has closed 179 schools and cut $7 million from an already inadequate budget, and who would like to close another 300 schools and convert them to charter schools. There would be no elected school board, no public meetings to get parent input and no guaranteed school for any student— charter schools would be able to pick and choose the students and disallow any they don’t want.

If there is a living example of what Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration would like to see in public education, Puerto Rico is it. Is this the future of education for our children and their children in the United States of America?

As to Ditsy Betsy’s views on school shootings, refer only to her confirmation hearing where she said that in Wyoming “I would imagine there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.” If there ever has been a more ridiculous and ignorant answer to a confirmation hearing question, I can’t imagine what it would be. She held up black colleges and universities as examples of “pioneers of school choice,” ignoring the fact that those schools began because black students had no choice, being barred from attending white colleges and universities.

And, amid a spate of scandals involving sexual assault on campuses, DeVos said that too many men were falsely accused and set new rules making it more difficult for accusers to prove their accusations. I’ll bet Donald Trump had orgasmic jubilation over that endorsement. DeVos also has said that under her private school system, discrimination by the schools should be left up to the states. You can imagine how that would play, especially in some southern states.

Under the DeVos concept of education schools would become franchise operations, a sort of McDonald’s of education mostly suited to creating a worker bee society to serve the needs of the monied class. Her elitist “let them eat cake” philosophy cuts close to home for me. Our oldest daughter, Carrie, now retired after more than 30 years as a high school English teacher, began her career practice teaching in a Minnesota school on an Indian reservation where there were signs in the hallways warning students not to set fires.

This was precisely the kind of underachieving school that Betsy DeVos never has visited and never will. It didn’t need fewer fires; it needed more funding and more dedicated teachers like Carrie. Later on, she spent a number of years teaching “last chance” kids (called sweat hogs in the old television series) in a Minneapolis suburban high school where she was underfunded and overworked. The school system was symptomatic, not of the failure of public education, but of the failure of the public to adequately support that system— precisely the reason that teachers now are beginning to awaken the public to what really is needed by going on strike. Not charter schools, not vouchers, not private schools for the privileged few, but schools open to all and funded adequately so men and women dedicated to teaching will have the means to do so.

Carrie says: “I walked a picket line for six weeks in Chaska in 1983, striking for adequate pay. The district chose to hire substitutes (scabs) from all over the Midwest for ridiculous pay, put them up in hotels, and bus them to the schools, marching them through our picket lines in a morale-destroying display. We did gain some concessions in the contract, but most didn’t recoup their losses. But the fact remains that teachers should be able to join unions to fight for their professional rights and dignity along with adequate pay, resources, and representation.”

This was not a failure of public education—it was a failure of the public education system to support the system. Now, Carrie’s youngest son, Martin, and his wife both are teaching in a Colorado elementary school. Their pupils are troubled youngsters, sometimes violent, sometimes seemingly impossible to teach–but both of the young teachers have aimed their entire career training toward giving severely handicapped youngsters a chance at a normal life. No DeVos school would accept kids like the ones Martin and Alex offer love, understanding, and education.

With billionaires dictating education policy and cabinet members throwing money around as if it had been printed just for their benefit, it’s worthwhile to note that spending on education is nearly what it was a decade ago and in more than half the states spending per student is less than it was 10 years ago. The entire profligate administration which seems dedicated to running the country into the ground must quickly be relegated to the dusty, dirty ashpit of history, and their selfish ambitions booted into the trash heap of failed policies.

There’s an election coming up in November, folks, and we all have a choice— bring sanity to government and get teachers off the picket line and back into public classrooms where they belong. It’s a solution to only one of the many problems created by the disastrous Trump regime, but it’s a start.

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