MEMBERS ONLY: Betsy DeVos And The Holy War Against Public Education

by Justin Rosario

Little Timmy sits down at his desk. Today he is learning science and he opens his textbook, the King James Bible, as the teacher begins to read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth….” Little Timmy goes home that day with the knowledge that the Earth is only 6000 years old and was created in 6 days. His charter school is fully funded by tax payer dollars and little Timmy spends every day being indoctrinated into Christian theocracy in direct violation of the Constitution.

It sounds outrageous but this scenario is at the core of Betsy Devos’ drive for “school reform.” As Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, DeVos is a singularly unqualified and uniquely dangerous person to put in charge of public education. Not only does she despise the very concept, she has spent decades advocating a Christian worldview in which the Bible is the sole arbiter of reality:

She is also a fundamentalist Christian and a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, a Protestant group that believes “all scientific theories be subject to Scripture and the confessions” and that “Humanity is created in the image of God; all theorizing that minimizes this fact and all theories of evolution that deny the creative activity of God are rejected.”   

The main reason that the religious right hates public education is because the Founding Fathers made it explicitly clear that the State cannot advocate for, or on behalf of, any religion. That means that the education the majority of American children receive is relatively free of religious dogma. If your worldview, like DeVos’, dictates that the Bible must be the center of all moral, intellectual and social development, this is intolerable.

And just in case you think this is more liberal anti-Christian propaganda, you’d do well to recall that Betsy DeVos’ brother is Erik Prince, a modern day “Crusader” who ran the Blackwater mercenary group. Prince was often cited as being a religious fanatic that saw Blackwater as his personal vehicle with which to wage war against Islam in the name of Jesus. He’s also allegedly working closely with the Trump administration to kick his Crusade back into high gear. This kind of religious fanaticism clearly runs in the family.

But like many fundamentalists, DeVos (and her equally “devout” husband Dick) has learned to hide her true objectives behind flowery rhetoric of “freedom,” claiming that “choice” is all she really cares about:

DeVos remains a harsh critic of the traditional education system, which she calls a “monopoly” and a “dead end.” But she said in the audio that she doesn’t want to destroy public education — only inject competition.
 
“Dick and Betsy are not radical fundamentalist, ‘in the hills’ kind of people,” said Rev. Robert A. Sirico, head of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, who described himself as a close friend. “They’re not the kind of people who want to force their beliefs down anybody’s throat.”

That sounds like the typical free market nonsense of libertarians and conservatives but when they think no one is paying attention, the DeVoses forget to lie about what they’re actually trying to accomplish:

In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.

School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.” The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend.

In other words, they want children to be indoctrinated by the State. And that’s exactly what carter schools allow.

Here’s how the scam works: Parents are given a “voucher” worth X amount of taxpayer dollars to “choose” the school they want to attend. They can pick from regular public schools, private schools or a glossy new charter school. Republicans have spent decades undermining public education and demeaning public school teachers so people want to try something “different,” making charter schools very attractive.

And since the parent is “paying” the school, the school is, or so the legal theory goes, not a taxpayer funded school. Presto! Now the school can consume millions of dollars of taxpayer money and not be subjected to the constitutional restrictions on religious indoctrination. This is the absolute foundation of DeVos’ efforts to dismantle public education. Curiously, this same logic is not afforded to women seeking contraceptives or abortions. In those cases, it doesn’t matter what route the money takes, it’s always “tax-payer funded murder.”

But, amazingly, it gets worse. Being a religious zealot does not preclude also waging class warfare and pursuing a corporatist agenda at the same time.

By privatizing education as DeVos so desperately argues for, corporations are taking billions of tax payer dollars away from students and enriching their bottom line. Some charter schools are run for a profit (think about that: Students are a source of revenue) but many are allegedly non-profits that still, magically, manage to funnel billions of dollars to Corporate America:

Charter schools often hire companies to handle their accounting and management functions. Sometimes the companies even take the lead in hiring teachers, finding a school building, and handling school finances.

In the case of Buffalo United, the auditors found that the school board had little idea about exactly how the company – a large management firm called National Heritage Academies – was spending the school’s money. The school’s board still had to approve overall budgets, but it appeared to accept the company’s numbers with few questions. The signoff was “essentially meaningless,” the auditors wrote.

John Oliver did a brutal, 18 minute segment on this last year, explaining all the different ways charter schools scam the taxpayers out of billions of dollars. The end result is that a few people get very rich and our students get very screwed. But that almost seems like a feature, not a bug of the charter school scam.

In Arizona, D.C., Louisiana, and Texas, charter school teachers do not have to be certified. In over a dozen other states, anywhere from 10% to 50% of the teachers can be non-certified. Several other states can get waivers to hire as many non-certified teachers as they want. This eliminates the pesky problem of teachers’ unions demanding better pay, a definite bonus when it comes to Republican politics and the corporate bottom line. It also removes the impetus to provide a solid education for our children.

This is what happens when you introduce a profit motive to a public function. And this is where the class warfare comes into play. One of the things DeVos leaves out of her pitch about “choice” is that by draining public schools, low income and middle class children are left holding the bag.

Consider that charter schools are allowed to kick low performing students out as a way of saving money (tutoring is expensive) and to artificially raise their testing scores. Guess which students tend to be lower performing: kids with money or kids without? When you get to pick the cream of the crop, the flip side of that is that the rest gets disposed of. These “trouble” students then get herded into underfunded public schools that, by law, cannot refuse them. And then, in a nice touch, Republicans point to those same schools and their lower scores as “proof” that public education is broken. It’s one of the slimiest self-fulfilling prophecies Republicans created and they’re not even slightly ashamed of it.

Here’s another fun tidbit: Remember when DeVos couldn’t bring herself to say that students with disabilities should be provided a “free appropriate public education?” That’s because charter schools also avoid kids with disabilities.

Via The Wall Street Journal:

The report showed that special-education students—those with diagnosed disabilities from Down Syndrome to attention-deficit disorder—made up 8.2% of charter school students during the 2009-2010 school year. While that was up from 7.7% the year before, it was below the average at traditional public schools of 11.2% in 2009-2010, and 11.3% the previous year.

Why do they do this? Because special needs students are expensive to educate. As the parent of an autistic 3rd grader, I am acutely aware of how much more effort my son’s education requires at home and at his school. In addition to his special education teacher, requires speech therapy, social counseling and a paraprofessional that works with him through the school day to focus on his work. Jordan once also required specialized physical therapy (for gross motor coordination) and occupational therapy (for fine motor skills). It’s a lot for one student. And that’s not even including the constant voluntary efforts of some of his classmates to keep him engaged.

In DeVos’ world, Jordan would be relegated to an underfunded school, if he was allowed to go at all. All of the services he currently receives from highly trained professionals, which amount to tens of thousands of dollars a year, minimum, would have to come out of our pocket. And since we couldn’t afford it, that would that. Better luck next time, Jordan. And the same would go for any student with any level of disability if DeVos had her druthers. The rich would be just fine, but everyone else would be left to fail. It’s the Christian thing to do.

As a final insult to the average American, wealthy parents can take the voucher they don’t need and use it to subsidize sending their kids to expensive private schools or exclusive charter schools that the rest of us plebes can’t afford. So, really, the only people that are getting the benefit of “choice” are the people that can pay for it.

As Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos is a human-sized middle finger to our school children. The worst part of this is that Trump doesn’t care about or even understand her agenda. He knows nothing about public education and has zero interest in it. Trump almost certainly picked her because one of his confidants, probably Steve Bannon, himself a fan of private schooling, told him to.

This means that if DeVos is confirmed, Trump will let her do whatever she wants to public education. Trump is too lazy to pay attention and he’s certainly not going to educate himself on the issues involved. He’ll simply watch Fox News who will tell him that everything is fine and public schooling is the best it’s ever been. Meanwhile, millions of students will be subjected to religious indoctrination and deprived of even a basic education. 

A is Adam, the first man who would never date anyone named Steve.
B is for the Bible, the only book you’ll ever need.
C is for Christ, who founded America and died for your sins because you were born wicked.

Little Timmy will be a model conservative citizen in no time at all.