“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” This was white supremacist Alabama Governor George Wallace’s epic battle cry in his infamous 1963 inaugural speech demonizing the civil rights movement. Billionaire Christian conservative Betsy DeVos and her family foundation’s school voucher crusade are inheritors of Wallace’s legacy.
DeVos, who is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education, has for over a decade been at the helm of a nationwide push to gut public education through voucher programs (whereby the state pays for students to switch from poorly performing public schools to private ones).
As many progressive and secular critics have pointed out, a linchpin of the DeVos agenda is an assault on secular education. The DeVos foundation, which has bankrolled the ultraconservative and homophobic Family Research Council and sponsored scores of insidious “school choice” bills from Michigan to Wisconsin, is part of an extensive network of right-wing foundations, institutes, and think tanks that subscribe to the dominionist belief that Christians must take control over societal and government institutions.
DeVos’s influence as an architect of checkbook theocracy in education is unparalleled but has been largely unsuccessful so far. As the Los Angeles Times recently noted,
California and thirty-six other states have constitutional provisions—called Blaine amendments—that ban the expenditure of public money on religiously affiliated schools. Close to 80 percent of private school students attend religious schools, which would be ineligible for vouchers in Blaine amendment states.
But it’s important for progressive humanists to understand that DeVos’s activism isn’t limited to the usual church-state separation issues vis-à-vis science literacy and white Christian fundamentalist efforts to shove creationism down students’ throats. Certainly, her blatant disregard for church-state separation would further undermine science literacy in a nation that routinely ranks at the bottom in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) achievement. Yet a cornerstone of the Christian right’s privatization agenda is the destruction of racial justice in education and a Dixiecrat-style return to separate and unequal schools.
Put straight: the voucher agenda is a byproduct of Southern states’ efforts to circumvent the desegregation mandate of Brown vs. Board of Education. It was and is a key strategy in the white nationalist/supremacist political arsenal that powered Trump to victory. As secretary of education, DeVos is likely to steamroll vouchers, not to mention push the neoliberal focus on charter schools, union busting, drill-and-kill high-stakes tests, and the militarization of school
Under former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Obama administration cozied up to charters and implemented wrongheaded policies like Race to the Top, which dubiously tied teacher salaries to student performance on standardized tests. It made noises about shoring up STEM education and academic opportunities for young men of color (while marginalizing girls of color) but allocated a pittance to the enrichment and wraparound programming that could have changed educational outcomes. And when it comes to higher education, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have floundered, scrambling for funding, support, and visibility from an administration that gave lip service to improving college access for students of color. Despite Obama’s “yes we can” multicultural rhetoric, the so-called achievement gap between black and white students has remained static.
Yet, for all of the Obama administration’s education policy failures, the DeVos appointment has the potential to be catastrophic. It represents a clear and present danger to the wellbeing of scores of students of color who have been most heavily impacted by privatization and the gutting of multicultural education. Nationwide, African-American, Latino, and Native-American students continue to have the lowest graduation and college-going rates. They are less likely to be taught by well-qualified teachers and more likely to be in schools where college counselors are either absent or saddled with too many students. Indeed, some urban schools of color have more school police than college counselors. And because many students of color don’t have equitable access to college prep curricula in the humanities and STEM disciplines, they have higher attrition rates when they go to college.
Low college admission and completion rates correlate with the skyrocketing numbers of students of color who are suspended, expelled, pushed out of school, and imprisoned in juvenile and adult facilities. There’s no reason to believe that DeVos wouldn’t cosign Trump’s law and order platform and increase federal funding for more police, military hardware, and surveillance equipment on school campuses.
The DeVos privatization agenda also bodes ill for undocumented students already facing a precarious future due to the president-elect’s threat to rescind Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The threat of deportation, homelessness, and family upheaval would traumatize already fragile immigrant communities that rely on a patchwork of social services to survive.
Under a Secretary DeVos, reproductive health education and the development of safe and inclusive school climates for LGBTQ students would also come under fire. The new regime could utilize its bully pulpit to further vilify equitable bathroom policies for transgender students, and the promotion of “abstinence-only” education would most likely be back on the federal table. Although states would have leeway in pushing back on these policies, a DeVos education department, buttressed by a GOP-controlled Congress, could jeopardize federal funding for states and school districts that buck the right-wing agenda.
As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund recently noted in its opposition to DeVos’s appointment, [She] provided funding for the Center for Individual Rights during its legal battle with the University of Michigan over affirmative action. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 to uphold the university’s affirmative action policy…she acknowledged that the motives underlying the policy were proper [but] stated that the policy was still unfair.
For human rights, social justice, and secular education, a DeVos regime in the US Department of Education would be a proverbial case of the fox guarding the henhouse.