It’s common in liberal circles to paint the Secretary of Education Besty DeVos as someone who’s polite yet unintelligent, incompetent yet mostly unassuming. However, this caricature is misleading and masks her very real threat to democracy; resolutely committed to a small-minded ideology, DeVos is backed by billions of dollars and now officially heads the most effective vehicle for social control in America.
Her life is a testament to the power and influence of the zealot donor class. Criticism of DeVos has centered around her lack of qualifications, but, in truth, she is not unqualified, at least not for what for what her ultimate aims are. She has spent decades doing the careful and systematic work of making a fringe political movement, school choice, a part of the mainstream political conversation. And, unfortunately for us all, she has succeeded.
Her method of social change required patience and an orientation towards the grass-roots work of changing minds. She expertly utilized the heaps of investigative journalism aimed at exposing the horror show that is the current American public education system. She twisted op-eds designed to encourage our involvement in this fragile yet powerful institution to stir-up cynicism towards the government:
“[My work] is forcing people to take note, particularly because of the public’s awareness that traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing. That’s helped people become more open to what were once considered really radical reforms—reforms like vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts.”
DeVos knows that her views—turning the common infrastructure of public education into a mechanism of profit and religious indoctrination—are “really radical.” So, she spent years doing the long, hard work of shifting political conversations:
“We did everything we could to engage and inform parents about the voucher opportunity. We bought ad time on urban radio stations. We bought billboards and web ads, did mailings and phone calls. We worked with ambassadors from the various parish churches and community groups. We hosted parent-information meetings. It was all grassroots work. It can look like tedious work, but it’s massively important.”
DeVos is part of a larger movement that is working, very tactically, to undermine the foundations of public education. It endeavors to, over a long period of time, make unpopular voucher programs more palatable to the American public. The theory of how this works is known as the “Overton Window”; policies that are initially considered extreme are normalized through gradual shifts in public opinion.
The charter school movement has been a huge blessing to DeVos’ work. It has given her a window through which she could promote her radical agenda. Because the ultimate far-right goal of ‘no government schools’ is distasteful in mainstream politics, rhetoric decrying the ‘failure of public education’ and a push towards increasing privatization is being leveraged by DeVos to move the public conversation incrementally. She wants people to be increasingly distrustful of their local public schools and less skeptical about the rampant fraud, waste, abuse, and greed that plagues charter schools. Charter schools are only a small part of the master plan, a single step towards total privatization.
“As we work to help provide parents with more educational choices, it is always with the assumption that charter schools are part of the equation. We think of the educational choice movement as involving many parts: vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools.”
Her goal is very explicit: “tear down” the institution of the neighborhood public school, an institution that is indispensable to the health of our democracy and links communities back for generations. Local schools link us to a history, they link us to a place, a specific community, our community.
Without a comprehensive understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from, we can’t do the complex, deliberative work of making democracy a vehicle for social cooperation. Without a recognition of the multiple perspectives through which the past can be viewed, politics turns from a constructive conversation into an outlet for smugness and irony on the left and rancor and hate on the right.
What DeVos is trying to do is replace this generational inheritance of collective memory with an ideology of choice and success. Her work is to convince us that it is in our best interest to sacrifice our sense of community and togetherness for “excellence” and “parental freedom.” She preys on parent’s instinctual desire to have their children be safe and succeed. She shows us that problem with education is not that parents are not involved with their own child’s education but, rather, that they are not involved in the education of everyone else, a matter that is a great deal more important.
DeVos will be careful to make her goals seem unassuming and in the interest of everyone. She says that, ultimately, her wish is, “That all parents, regardless of their zip code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children. And that all students have had the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.”
But what DeVos makes clear is that the decline of democracy will come gradually, gently, and with the best of intentions.