Yes, the Donald Trump nominee for the U.S. Secretary of Education is the same Betsy DeVos who cheered the defeat of SQ 779 and helped fund pro-voucher candidates for the Legislature. She’s the same Amway heiress who pushed the expansion of Oklahoma City’s KIPP charter school.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Betsy DeVos wants to make America’s public education sector into a national version of the starved Oklahoma school system. The founder of the American Federation for Children wants to complete the full ALEC, Koch Brothers, Walton Foundation for-profit, privatization agenda in our state and the rest of the nation.
But it is even worse than that.
DeVos’ political ties like a who’s who of conservatism
A comprehensive 2014 analysis of the DeVos family’s right-wing agenda concluded that they “sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement.”
As the Mother Jones analysis reports, Richard DeVos Sr. “was an early member and funder of the Council for National Policy, a secretive network of hardline conservative leaders founded by Left Behind author Tim LaHaye.”
Betsy’s father was also a founder of the conservative, Christian, anti-choice Family Research Council. Her brother founded the infamous Blackwater private-security company. Disgraced Texas congressman Tom DeLay advanced their agenda under the informal name of the Amway caucus.
Other DeVos allies include gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson, Texas investor Harold Simmons, activist attorney Jim Bopp, general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, who also was the chief architect behind the controversial 2010 Citizens United case and, last, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, of course. DeVos also used the Oklahoma Right to Work experience to inform her campaign to break unions in Michigan.
Intertwined conservative zealotry
And that brings us back to the imminent threat that the DeVos/Pence/Trump team represents for Oklahoma. A recent Oklahoman editorial praised the role of business leaders, who invested millions of dollars in a “wide range of education reforms, including vouchers, charter school expansion, merit pay and more.” Responding to a presentation by a reformer from Pence’s state of Indiana, the Oklahoman proclaimed, “The lessons of Indiana apply not only to education reform in Oklahoma, but to all conservative policy areas.”
A national exposé by Media Matters explains how those intertwined, mostly hidden, corporate-funding networks have choreographed an extreme, anti-government campaign. It notes:
Betsy DeVos is also the co-founder and current chair of the boards at the anti-teachers-union state advocacy groups Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children (AFC) and a close friend of teachers union opponent Campbell Brown, who also serves on AFC’s board. DeVos also sits on the board of [Jeb Bush’s] the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Through the DeVos Family Foundation, the DeVoses have given millions to anti-teachers union and pro-privatization education groups.
Here’s the real danger DeVos represents: She is not just a run-of-the-mill corporate school reformer who promotes “public charter schools” under the auspices of bringing disruptive innovation to public schools. She pushes a for-profit privatization agenda that is doing for schools what privatized jails and prisons did for nonviolent offenders; what privatized water systems did for the citizens of Flint, Michigan; and what Blackwater’s mercenaries did for Iraqi noncombatants (and the American soldiers who faced the retaliation sparked by Blackwater’s abuses).
Even Oklahoma reformers shy away from DeVos’ platform
The reformers I know personally are uncomfortable about the Christian Right component of DeVos’ and Pence’s ideologies. They’d prefer not to think about the way that 80 percent of the charters in DeVos’ Michigan are for-profits, or the way that Pence’s Indiana vouchers break down the constitutional separation of church and state (as well as the homophobic dimension of that state’s movement). Reformers who are actually connected to schools tend to distance themselves from the multitude of scandals spawned by for-profit charters and virtual schools.
Not many Oklahoma reformers feel comfortable with online charters like ABLE Charter School, which the state ordered to close. As Oklahoma Watch reported in July, “Of the 93 students enrolled at the start of the school year, just 12 remained in the [ABLE] program for the full year.” After all, virtual charters are perfect examples of schools that collect state funds for as many students as they can recruit, but they don’t have to keep those students for long.
Neither do Oklahoma reformers like to think about the three-year investigation into our state’s Epic virtual schools. Epic is the state’s largest charter, serving more than 8,000 students, but it can’t even document its attendance rate. Neither does Epic seem able to answer charges filed in California for predatory practices and that state’s findings that the Oklahoma-based charter is “without any transparency, accountability and oversight.”
Two kinds of reform
Non-educators and educators alike have failed to fully distinguish between so-called “public charters,” which are pushed by people who at least hope that they will figure out ways to hold choice schools accountable, versus private charters, which don’t have to try to make that claim.
Still, I admit to paying more attention to the charter supporters with whom I can converse and try to persuade and/or collaborate than to the real powers behind the corporate reform movement and their “dark money.”
Most reformers whom I know personally support the private governance of charters and charter management systems (CMOs), but they would reject the total privatization of public schools — just as they would oppose the privatization of prisons, social security and the military. I’m sure that some local reformers will be tempted to support Trump’s and DeVos proposed $20 billion campaign for public and private, non-profit and for-profit schools, but others will refuse to cooperate with the racist, sexist and xenophobic administration.
‘Choice’ options under DeVos would threaten OKCPS
Here’s the big irony: Corporate reformers who have demonized teachers, unions, education schools and school boards have often spoken privately of their mixed feelings about uniting with right-wing reformers. They did so, I’m often told, because they believed it was necessary for Democrats to prove their toughness by battling unions and other loyal Democrats. The Obama administration, for instance, adopted an ALEC-lite, Scott Walker-lite and Betsy DeVos-lite education agenda in an effort to keep the far-right from completely destroying public schools. In doing so, they inadvertently opened the door to mass charterization and an American president with strong support from the alt-right.
Now, we must prepare for the second half of the “one-two punch.” Under a DeVos administration, “choice” options will be defined as including the unchecked expansion of vouchers, for-profit charters and virtual schools. If conservative, neoliberal and liberal supporters of “public school charters” don’t reconsider their relationship with DeVos, Pence, Trump and the rest of the ALEC/Koch brothers agenda, the future of the OKCPS is even more in doubt.