A few hours after Betsy DeVos confirmation as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Professor Wayne Au posted a commentary to Facebook that provided a quick historical context to this confirmation and some ways to dust off and acting. By the next day, Professor Au’s post had been shared over 1200 times. Below is Prof. Au’s thoughts on why and how the comments were helpful as well as the comments he posted.
On the morning of February 7th, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the Trump Administration’s Secretary of Education. The travesty of the DeVos nomination is well documented. She is completely unqualified to head up our public schools – having no public school experience herself and having played a key role in the dismantling of Detroit public schools. She is also an advocate for private school vouchers, with the expressed intention of using those vouchers to spread her form of Christianity. Ultimately DeVos’ nomination was just another in a long line of cabinet picks in the upside down bizarro world of Trumpistan: An official federal leader of public education who hates public education (and a bunch of the people in it).
News of the DeVos confirmation flooded my Facebook feed immediately after it happened. The vast majority of the response was disbelief, despair, and cynicism, especially given the fairly large mobilizations of mainstream and progressive education activists calling their state representatives and urging them to vote “no” on DeVos (side note: DeVos was one of the only nominees that Democrat politicians voted against, with many of those same politicians voting “yes” to confirm Trump’s other upside down bizarro world cabinet picks). Given the despondence of I was seeing, I spent a few minutes writing some quick points in reflection, trying to give some broader, activist perspective on the DeVos confirmation.
I didn’t expect it to, but my post went viral (well, viral for me at least), getting almost 1,200 official shares on Facebook. Friends reported that it was spreading with unofficial attribution in places like Oklahoma or that they were talking with colleagues and family members about it in meetings and over dinner tables. In the end what I think happened is that so many folks were depressed by the DeVos confirmation that they found my little post to be helpful in making sense of it all, and even a little healing in these trying times.
So here is the post, slightly edited and with some additions to clarify my points.
“A few quick points on the DeVos confirmation”
1. Yes, she’s terrible and this will hurt a lot of kids around the country. She will be devastating to poor kids and kids in SPED. She will likely take away supports for LGBQT kids and families and try to strip our abilities to protect our Muslim and undocumented students. As others have said, Trump hates us, and so the DeVos nomination is consistent with that hate.
2. If she weren’t confirmed, the next person up would also have been terrible.
3. Don’t romanticize the past: The last 8 years of education policy under Obama have also been about cementing free market reforms, the destruction of public education, and attacks on communities of color through those reforms (charters, “choice,” testing, anti-union, mayoral control, school closings, etc., etc.). So, yes, DeVos is like those reforms on steroids and she has some particularly retrograde cultural politics, but the policy trajectory is clear and the logics are consistent with Duncan and Obama.
4. Upside: Because many of DeVos’ policies fundamentally align with what the Dems and liberals (centrist-neoliberals) have been pushing for the last 8 years, the DeVos confirmation forces them to justify their positions and either distinguish themselves from DeVos or just go ahead and admit that they are in alignment with her – at clearly potentially great political cost (Check out T. Jameson Brewer and Mitchell Robinson’s great explanation of this).
5. The federal DOE has a relatively small budget (relatively speaking) and the Secretary of Education also has very limited power (relatively speaking). Over 90% of our education funding comes from a combination of local tax base and state funding, so the K-12 strings she can pull are relatively short. I don’t mean to suggest that school districts won’t be devastated by losing this money, which in some large urban districts can be well over $100 million, and we know that poor kids and kids in SPED will feel the brunt of this. But, we also need to recognize that federal support for education is limited at best.
6. Because of #4, there is a lot to be said for focusing our organizing at the local and state levels. If DeVos is going to be consistent, then she is going to kick A LOT of education policy down to the states. That is where a lot of the fight will now be.
7. All of that said, DeVos could really mess up higher education by making it more difficult for students to get access to loan programs – particularly if she and the rest of the Trump administration want to punish specific states and specific universities who are resisting him.
8. And all of that said, we’ve been organizing against terrible federal education reforms for decades. All the DeVos confirmation does is shift the terrain, shift our tactical focus, and give us a chance to broaden our organizing base.
Wayne Au is an editor for the social justice teaching magazine, Rethinking Schools, and he is an Associate Professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. His most recent book is, Reclaiming the Multicultural Roots of U.S. Curriculum (co-authored with Anthony Brown and Dolores Calderon).