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Privatized Thought: Betsy DeVos and the Reality of a Corporate Education


The role that schooling plays in a democratic society simply cannot be overstated. Schools operate as an integral element of a functioning democracy and without them, all elements of a democracy, even the founding notion of a democracy- that an informed populace votes on important matters- is shattered. For anyone who hopes for progressive change in any nation, the way that education functions must be considered. Education and schools are the primary site where our youth learn values, norms, history, behaviors, ethics, and more. To hope for progress of any sort is to essentially hope for progress in education. The fact that education is the foundation of a democracy and of a society and is an essential tool for any cause is never ignored by interests on any place along the political spectrum.

Unfortunately for those in favor of progressive thought, the conservative and corporate powers have largely dictated the ways in which education takes place in America. The influence of corporate wealth and power on education takes many forms. While some are blatant, others operate in what is called the “hidden curriculum”, or what is not taught in schools or taught covertly. Take for example, the textbooks in classrooms that do not teach evolution. Or, look at the interpretations of American foreign policy in history books that present nationalistic views of wars and foreign affairs (Apple, 2006).

These views that are taught to our students, along with behavioral norms such as sitting passively and accepting what is taught are forms of what Noam Chomsky refers to as the
“indoctrination of our youth”. For most of us reading this, we have likely “re-educated” ourselves since our education in the primary and secondary grades and now see beyond these blatant manipulations, but for many of our youth, who then become our voting populace, these learned ideologies are tremendously damaging to progressive thought and form the whole of their worldview and political consciousness. In effect, the indoctrination of the youth through education can create a voting populace that is not only damaging to true democracy and society as a whole, but is simply dangerous (Chomsky & Herman, 2002).

The way that we learn history, the behaviors and viewpoints that we are taught are acceptable, the different cultural norms, all of the things that we learn in a school are all political. Any action that takes place in education is, by necessity, political. As a result of this, education is an incredibly powerful tool and one that is increasingly placed in the hands of the elite. With an increase of corporate control over education through textbooks or classroom management systems that are sold to school districts, there is an increase in a type of education that plays directly into a passive, consumer-based education. This type of education is extremely valuable for a capitalist society that has no need (or room) for anything other passivity and certainly does not want revolution or progressive challenges to power.

Through things such as textbooks that don’t teach evolution or realistic interpretations of wars or corporate news specifically created for students (and advertisements to go along with them), the conservative and corporate powers of America have had a tremendous influence on education. However, there is a final domino in the long descent to corporate control of schools and public thought. The final element of near-total corporate control of schooling is the privatization of schools. No longer will corporations and conservative think tanks influence or even dictate what is taught. Instead, they will simply own the entire school and control every possible element of it. What seems like a utopian dream for the capitalist elite has taken shape in a push for privatized schools known as charter schools. Billed and sold to the population as “student choice” and offering control back to the community, these schools are portrayed under the facade of a more community-oriented, effective and democratic option for schooling, but the exact opposite of this is what is often true.

With the hijacking of public education by privatized business, these schools serve a very specific cause. While some charter schools offer real opportunity for students or alternative and effective approaches to education, all too frequently they function as privatized businesses removed from community control and instead placed in the hands of CEOs and businessmen and women with profits in mind and an opportunity to reproduce passive consumers. Many charter schools offer a direct challenge to free thought and the development of an informed populace as a direct result of their schooling-for-profit design. Even well-meaning reformists can become entangled in the complex web of interests that is created when schools are removed from the public commons and placed in the hands of the free market.

Despite this direct conflict of interest, these types of schools have gained in popularity. A recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows “between school years 2003–04 and 2013–14, the percentage of all public schools that were public charter schools increased from 3.1 to 6.6 percent, and the total number of public charter schools increased from 3,000 to 6,500. In addition to increasing in number, charter schools have generally increased in enrollment size over the last decade” (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Beginning with Bush administration policies such as No Child Left Behind and its support for the charter school movement, then furthered by reformists during the Obama terms and a general lack of action by an Obama administration, it has seemed more and more likely that the majority of American schools will soon be run by private interests.

However, the ultimate accomplishment for this group of corporate interests thus far has just taken place. With the nomination of Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education, we have seen the greatest victory yet for the privatization of schools and a huge win for the conservative right and corporate interests in America. With the election of Donald Trump, progressive thought was in danger, yet, the nomination of DeVos has also positioned an attack on progressive thought in schools. As a result, is possible that what I refer to as the “final domino” in privatizing schools
may fall.

Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a staunch school reformer and a firm believer in the privatization of schools, as well as the repression of anything other than white, conservative Christian beliefs. DeVos is a billionaire and has been a major donor to the Republican Party, various conservative/Christian causes and a proponent for charter schools for many years. In DeVos’ confirmation hearing for her position, she refused to state whether or not public and charter schools would be held to the same standards, or whether she would protect the Pell Grants that so many American students depend on. Throughout her life, DeVos has time and time again proven to be a friend of the conservative, Christian, billionaire class and a terrible foe to anyone else. Unfortunately for us, over the last few years DeVos has wisely chosen education as her vehicle for dissemination of her viewpoints. While this is a cause for alarm for many teachers nationwide and proponents of change in American culture and thought everywhere, DeVos’ problematic elements go far, far deeper.

To begin, and as stated previously, DeVos is a billionaire and a member of the corporate elite. Her husband is the heir to the immense wealth of the marketing corporation AmWay. DeVos herself is also an heir to a tremendous fortune accumulated by her parents. DeVos’ brother, Eric Prince, is the founder of the notorious privatized military force Blackwater USA, which was utilized in the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict and has now been advising President-elect Trump due to his relation with DeVos.

Further, DeVos sat on the board of her mother’s foundation as Vice President (which she denies ever happened, despite 990 forms clearly indicating otherwise) during years in which the foundation contributed massive amounts of money to causes by foundations that are so outwardly oppressive that one (Family Research Council) has even been labeled as an “anti LGBT hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. These contributions fought to push organizations who have lobbied for bills to overturn gay marriage and to push white, conservative Christian viewpoints through our public schools. (Scahill, 2017). One could stop at this point with enough conflicts of interest to draw major (and appropriate) hesitation or refusal of confirmation to DeVos’ role as the Secretary of Education, yet we have not even touched DeVos’ experience (or lack thereof) in education.

To conflict with DeVos’ ability to direct the trajectory of public education even further is the fact that DeVos has never been a teacher of any kind. In fact, DeVos has never even attended public school, nor have her children. Beyond a lack of experience in the actual classrooms of America, DeVos also has no experience with some of the more intricate duties of the Secretary of Education. For example, DeVos now runs a department that oversees millions of federal loans for education, yet she has no experience with such a program whatsoever. DeVos herself has never even used a federal loan for education and of course, her children have not either. In short, DeVos is a billionaire Republican with no real experience in public education yet she is in now in charge of public education.

This simply is a devastating blow to education in America. What we look at now is a strikingly real possibility of drastic changes to how education functions in America. Our education system already teaches students blatant lies about the history of the nation, replicates the social classes of students and in essence guarantees a working class for corporate powers that also offers no legitimate challenge to power. Education is and has been a system that was crippled and dictated by capitalist society. We must recognize that as fact. However, this system may no longer operate in the hidden work of schools or in historical deceptions that create passive consumers.

What we face now is a public school system that is ran by a billionaire who has been a major proponent of transforming schools into what are essentially corporate-controlled sites of indoctrination- primarily for the reproduction of Christian values. These interests have been removed from the underbelly of education through lobbying, campaign contributions and think tanks and have now taken the helm as the face and mindset behind the entire system. With the nomination of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, we can expect steps towards the privatization of schooling, the proliferation of charter schools, greater corporate and conservative control over schools and in effect, an increase in the “indoctrination of our youth” for the benefit of corporate, as well as Anglo-Saxon, interests and to the detriment of the hope for radical change in America. We must all resist this attack on progressive thought in any way that we can.

References

Apple, M. (2006). Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality. London: Routledge.
Chomsky, N., & Herman, E. S. (2002). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Panthenon.
Scahill, J. (2017, January 18), Trump Education Secretary Nominee Betsy DeVos Lied to the Senate. Retrieved from https://theintercept.com/2017/01/18/trump-education-nominee-betsy-devos-lied-to-the-senate/
U.S. Department of Education, N. C. (2016). The Condition of Education 2016. U.S Department
of Education.

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