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Public (School) Enemy No. 1: Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Pick for Education Secretary

StoryDecember 01, 2016
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Donald Trump has tapped conservative billionaire Betsy DeVos to serve as education secretary. DeVos is the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and a longtime backer of charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools. In response, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, “In nominating Devos Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.” Since 1970, the DeVos family has invested at least $200 million in various right-wing causes. DeVos’s father-in-law is the co-founder of Amway, and her brother is Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater. For more, we speak to former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, Center for Media and Democracy Executive Director Lisa Graves, and elected member of the Detroit Board of Education Tawanna Simpson.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Donald Trump has tapped conservative billionaire Betsy DeVos to serve as education secretary. DeVos is the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and a longtime backer of charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools. In response, American Federations of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, quote, “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America,” unquote. If confirmed by the Senate, DeVos could become the most anti-public school education secretary since the Office of Education was established in 1867. The New York Times notes DeVos helped turn her home state of Michigan into one of the nation’s biggest school choice laboratories, and the result was disastrous.

AMY GOODMAN: The DeVoses have bankrolled their school deregulation and privatization efforts through a dark money group called American Federation for Children, a major contributor to the right-wing corporate education movement. They’ve also pushed controversial anti-union state legislation known as “right to work,” dealing a major blow to the labor movement, including teachers’ unions, in Michigan. Since 1970, the DeVoses have invested at least $200 million in various right-wing causes. DeVos’s father-in-law is the co-founder of Amway, and her brother is Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater.

For more, we’re joined by three guests. In Detroit, Michigan, we’re joined by Tawanna Simpson, elected member of the Detroit Board of Education. In Madison, Wisconsin, Lisa Graves is with us, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. Her piece is titled “5 Things to Know About Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Trump Education Choice.” And here in New York, we’re joined by Diane Ravitch, the former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, historian of education, best-selling author of over 20 books, including Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, as well as The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Lisa Graves, let’s begin with you. What do you think are the five most important things to understand about President Trump—President-elect Trump’s education pick?

LISA GRAVES: Well, I think he chose perhaps the most unqualified person he could for this position. She is an enemy of public schools. She’s someone who has used her inherited wealth and the wealth that she’s married into to try to distort and reshape our laws to advance her personal views, which are that we should basically redefine public education to mean our tax dollars should be going to fund private schools, religious schools, that advance her worldview. And so, she’s someone who didn’t even send her kids to public schools. She’s someone who, basically, has devoted her wealth to attacking our campaign finance laws, to attacking labor laws and to attacking the very idea of having universal public education for all students that’s truly public. So, she’s someone who is manifestly unqualified.

I think it’s going to be an enormous battle nationally and in our states to protect our public schools, which is really one of the greatest innovations of America in the past century, to have universal public education, truly public schools for all, and to really invest in those schools. Putting her in charge of the Department of Education really is an insult to all of the many teachers and educators and principals and so many Americans who have come through our public schools, who have had a chance in this economy to make it in their lives in part due to this commitment of America to public schools, which we need to invest in more versus the sort of alternatives that Betsy DeVos has pushed, including charter schools that have sucked billions out of our public education system and that have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of fraud.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Diane Ravitch, DeVos supports vouchers and charter schools. Could you explain what vouchers are and what the key differences are between public schools and charter schools, because some say that charter schools enable more choice?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, they do enable choice, but they’re not necessarily better schools. And what they basically are, are privately managed, privately run and, in many cases, for-profit schools. Michigan has many charter schools, and 80 percent of them are run for profit. So, these are privately owned schools. It’s the first step towards privatization. And they’re schools that are open to students, which students can choose, but very often they’re worse than the public school that they’re leaving.

A voucher, on the other hand, is a plan to give the money directly to the family, although they don’t—they never see the money. They’re just told, “You now have a voucher. It’s worth $5,000, $6,000, $8,000—whatever the voucher is. You can go anywhere with it. You can go to a commercial school. You can go to a charter. You can go to a religious school.” So, this breaks the long history of a separation of church and state, because most of the vouchers that are used in the states that now have vouchers are for religious schools. And most of them are not going to—it’s not enough money to go to an elite school or to the best school. It’s usually very—like in the South, it’s backwoods fundamentalist church schools that have uncertified staff.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of Betsy DeVos’s educational background?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I agree with Lisa. She’s the most unqualified person ever to be nominated for this. But more than that, she represents the religious right. She is unusual in that she is a representative of the religious right with billions of dollars behind her. So, her American Federation for Children has used its strategic giving to promote vouchers all over the country. And there are many states that—about half the states now have some form of voucher. But the important thing to know about vouchers and charters is that neither of them has ever been approved by popular vote. The DeVos family—Betsy DeVos, in particular—launched a referendum in Michigan in the year 2000. It was rejected by 69 percent to 31 percent. There have now been six or eight state elections since 1990. They have been turned down by 70 to 30, 65-35. Overwhelmingly, in every state where they’ve been tried, where the vouchers have been put forward, they’ve been turned down. In this last election, this year, two states, Massachusetts and Georgia, overwhelming majorities opposed charter school expansion. So there has never been popular expression saying we want to get rid of our public schools and replace them with privately managed charters or vouchers that you can take to any place.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go right to Michigan, where Betsy DeVos lives. Tawanna Simpson, you are an elected member of the Detroit Board of Education. Can you share your response when you heard that President-elect Donald Trump had tapped Michigander Betsy DeVos to be the secretary of education?

TAWANNA SIMPSON: I was very disappointed and disheartened, because we have worked so—we have worked so hard in the grassroots here in Detroit to save our traditional public schools. Under emergency management, we worked to ensure that the legislator accepted the debt that they created in our traditional public schools. We worked very hard and advocated and lobbied for them to appropriate money to our traditional public schools. And we stopped the legislator from chartering our entire school district. So, I found it very disheartening just to find out, after all the hard work that we put into it, that, you know, from the federal level, it can be changed.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Betsy DeVos in her own words speaking on Fox Business Network.

BETSY DEVOS: The reality is that most charter schools in this country take the kids that are doing poorly in the schools that they were assigned to, and all the parents want is greater choice for their children. The more choices we have, the more competition we have, but also the better product or the better learning opportunity for the kids.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Betsy DeVos speaking on Fox. Tawanna Simpson, what’s your experience of working with Betsy DeVos? What effect has she had on the Detroit schools, where you’re a board member?

TAWANNA SIMPSON: Well, you know, she—her and her family provide lots of money to the legislator to make sure that—to ensure laws go the way they wanted, to have mandated, unaccountable and corrupt charter schools in our city. But listen to her statement. It’s actually the opposite. Charter schools come into our traditional public schools and cherry-pick the best students. They don’t take the students who need the most help, because it makes no economic sense for charter schools, because it would cost more money to educate students that have other needs—I mean, additional educational needs.

AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip of Betsy DeVos speaking at the American Federation for Children summit earlier this year.

BETSY DEVOS: All told, together we’ve helped more than a million kids in private school choice programs. And we’re just getting started. Since we last met, Nevada, Montana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Maryland and South Dakota have all passed private school choice programs.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Betsy DeVos. Diane Ravitch, I mean, it all comes down to what’s best for children. What are the records on these different schools? And what will it mean who is secretary of education? How will she compare, for example, to Arne Duncan? He was also a supporter of charter schools.

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I have to say, somewhat echoing a little bit of Cornel West, that the Obama administration, in education, laid the groundwork for Trump and Betsy DeVos, because they were big supporters of charter schools. And I’ve been arguing for years that charter schools are the first step towards full privatization.

AMY GOODMAN: You didn’t always think that. You worked—

DIANE RAVITCH: I didn’t always think that. Oh, I know.

AMY GOODMAN: —for George H.W. Bush. You were a big proponent of charter schools.

DIANE RAVITCH: Right. Well, the charter school idea started in 1988. It was just an idea then. Then, in 1992, the first charter—1990, the first charters opened in Wisconsin, the first one. And then they began slowly to spread. And at the time, I thought, “Gee, that’s an interesting experiment.” Al Shanker, who was—Albert Shanker, the head of the AFT, was one of the original proponents of charters.

AMY GOODMAN: American Federation of Teachers.

DIANE RAVITCH: American Federation of Teachers. And in 1988, he said, “This is a great idea. We should try this.” But by 1993, he said charters are no different from vouchers, because they both open the door to corporations coming in and running public schools. And what we have today—and I changed my mind, and I wrote a book in 2010 saying charters, choice and testing are killing education in this country, which I still believe. But when he renounced charters, he recognized that there was an increasing corporate interest in moving into the schools. So, today we have corporate chains, and some of them are nonprofit, like KIPP, although they do take in a lot of money, and we also have for-profit charter chains run by non-educators. And we have people like Andre Agassi, who’s a high school dropout, creating a charter chain, even though his own Andre Agassi School is one of the lowest-performing schools in the state of Nevada.

We have a sector called the charter industry, which people invest in. There are equity investors putting money into it. Wall Street is one of the biggest backers of charter schools these days, because they’re investing in—they make—there’s something called the new markets tax credit, where they get—and Juan González wrote about this—they’re able to make a tremendous return on their investment in charters, because of write-offs on federal taxes by investing in charters. People from out of the country can get green cards by investing in charter school construction. There are all kinds of deals. And the biggest and sleaziest deal of all is the charter operators, the for-profit operators, in particular, who buy a piece of property and then rent it to themselves at a rental that’s three, four, five, 10 times the market rate, and they make tons of money, not on the school, but on the leasing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, were charter schools—you said they were introduced—the first one opened in Wisconsin in 1990. Were they ever a response to failing public schools?

DIANE RAVITCH: Actually, it was Minnesota, not Wisconsin, the first one, and it’s still there. And at the time, the original idea was that they would take in kids that the public schools were not able to help. So they were bringing in dropouts. They were bringing in kids who had lost motivation in school, and trying to find different ways. That was the Shanker idea, is that the charter schools would fill a need that the public schools had and help the public schools, and whatever they learned, they would return to the public schools. He never conceived them as competition, where they would cherry-pick their students, as the board member from Detroit mentioned. They cherry-pick the best students. They kick out kids who don’t have high scores. They exclude kids who are English language learners. And they exclude kids with disabilities. They take the mildest form of disabilities, like a learning disability, and the kids who have profound disabilities are left to the public schools, which now have less money to educate them.

AMY GOODMAN: And the attitude of teachers’ unions towards Betsy DeVos right now?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, they’re very frightened, because Betsy DeVos is anti-union, and she’s sponsored and been active in promoting right-to-work laws. And she was—she and her family helped to turn Michigan from being a very strong union state to being a right-to-work state. She’s also put money—she and her husband have put money into right-wing groups like Focus on the Family, which believes in conversion therapy and sponsors anti-gay activities and legislation. Her mother put a half-million dollars into the ballot in California, which was an effort to remove protections for gay rights. So, all of these issues, which are the kind of the right-wing catalog of horribles—of gay rights, of labor union protections or destruction—are focused around her. But her main focus is school privatization. And school privatization was tried—has been tried in Chile and in Sweden, and the results have been very clear: The first and most important product is hypersegregation, because everybody goes off to be with people just like themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Diane Ravitch served as assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. Her books include Reign of Error. We also have been joined by Tawanna Simpson, elected member of the Detroit Board of Education, and Lisa Graves of the Center for Media and Democracy. We will link to your piece, Lisa, at democracynow.org.

That does it for our show. Join us December 5th at Riverside Church in New York for our 20th anniversary, including Harry Belafonte, Noam Chomsky, Patti Smith, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Tom Morello, Juan González and many more. Check our website, democracynow.org.

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