Wednesday, November 13, 2019
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Can DeVos and privatization be stopped?

Less than a year ago, lawmakers in Maryland made their point known that Betsy DeVos and the “privatize public schools” agenda weren’t right for America.

Maryland House Speaker Michael E Busch, Maryland State Education Association President Betty Weller, and dozens of General Assembly Democrats tried to shoot down proposals from Gov Larry Hogan, a Republican, to increase state funding for private school scholarships and bypass public school boards when establishing charter schools in Maryland.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel after his 2015 re-election

Yet, because US Sen Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, was one of only two from her party to cast a vote against Ms DeVos’s confirmation after her laughable confirmation hearing, Vice President Mike Pence had to break the tie. He said it was the easiest vote he had ever cast, but then again, at the time, he had only held national office for a few weeks.

Before that, he was governor in Indiana, where between 2009 and 2013 public school funding was slashed by more than $3 billion but charter school funding was increased by $539 million and vouchers by $248 million. If that’s where we’re going, get off the train now. It’s like knowing a hurricane is coming and instead of getting ready, people seem to be trying to find ways to stop the storm. The leading edge of the hurricane has already hit.

Sen Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate education committee, said: “Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we can’t work together when the children are the important thing, the students are the important thing, and we ought to look for ways to create an environment where they can succeed.”

Ms Murkowski generally agreed with that, tweeting: “Although I did not vote in favor of Betsy DeVos, now that she’s been confirmed it is important we work together as she takes over.”

So Ms DeVos is now the US education secretary. People opposed to her selection—and there are many—need to accept that. In particular, Democrats who opposed her need to acquire real, substantial political power in the form of public offices held by Democrats: county councils, mayorships, state legislative seats, governorships, and so on. The game is about political power—acquiring it and then using it. Anything else is just noise. Making noise might feel good, but in itself, it achieves nothing.

In general, many of President Donald Trump’s choices for his cabinet and key advisers gave us an indication that he sought to destroy a substantial portion of government oversight of private activity. It’s unlikely that encouraging these trends to privatization will do more than destroy government’s unique power to benefit the general public. That is, public benefit could be replaced by private profit.

If we blindly accept this trend, we’ll have to live with the result. On the other hand, this push to privatization at the federal level, from the White House no less, may be the much needed stimulus to generating massive public intervention into political policies.

Writing in the Washington Post, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel laid out a four-point plan to make public schools better.

“Promoting choice at the expense of quality isn’t an education strategy, it’s a political agenda,” he wrote. “Rather, those of us creating education policy need to simply focus on providing the quality choices that students deserve.”

  1. Focus on principals, the real driver of education quality
  2. Start young, because children start dropping out of school when they’re young
  3. Expand programming in high schools: IB, STEM, magnet programs, charter options
  4. Close failing schools so money can be devoted to making schools better

The strategy isn’t easy, and it has detractors on all sides of politics. Yet, the graduation rate and the college enrollment stats have gone up for Chicago Public Schools high schools that have implemented some of these strategies.

High school is probably the “toughest battle,” Mr Emanuel wrote, but investing in quality is the key. That could start by expanding pre-K, because that gets kids reading, which leads to success (and subsequent happiness) in school. Bottom line: Kids who like school and find happiness and joy there tend to stay in school.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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