If there is a taper in our vast political divide—a sliver of common ground, maybe, or a ravine narrow enough that we could almost shout across it and be heard—it might just be the bipartisan rage closing in around Betsy DeVos. We are almost—almost—united in our outrage about President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Education. Two Republican Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced their plans to vote against her confirmation, and various others were rumored to be on the verge of defecting (Deb Fischer of Nebraska and John Cornyn of Texas among them). On Feb. 2, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) excitedly tweeted: “The last three days have been the BUSIEST IN CAPITOL SWITCHBOARD HISTORY. By almost double. This is working.” NPR reported that, as of Feb. 3, 30,000 phone calls had flooded into Senate offices by concerned constituents urging their representatives to vote against DeVos.
Her performance during her confirmation hearing was inconsistent at best. She revealed her ignorance about fundamental issues in public education and suggested that schools have the right to arm themselves against grizzly bear attacks. She suggested that charter schools and private schools should not be beholden to the same standards as public schools. She is a generous contributor to Republican candidates for office, she did not attend public schools, and she has no bureaucratic experience.
But her lack of experience is not nearly as offensive as her lack of belief in the very system she would oversee. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “DeVos is the least qualified, the most ill-prepared and the most hostile to public education of anyone who’s ever had that role.” All three of those characterizations ring true, but the last one is the most upsetting to the American people: DeVos wants to destroy public education. Her ideas don’t fit within the traditionally conservative education reform agenda, which includes the widely accepted support of charter schools; instead, she represents a radical view that public education is an inherently unfixable system that must be bulldozed and replaced by more efficient, market-driven alternatives.
The level of widespread and virulent opposition to DeVos is surprising, especially considering the comparative ineptitude of Trump’s other cabinet selections. As CREDO campaigner Heidi Hess told NPR, “Nobody has gotten people as enraged as DeVos.” But the reason is simple: Americans like their public schools. While reformers have insisted for three decades that American public education is a broken system, most Americans don’t buy it. Nine out of ten Americans have attended public schools and hold their neighborhood public schools in very high regard, and despite the pervasive reformist narrative of its failure, American public schools are doing a better job than ever of educating our children.
For those of us who are advocates of public education, teachers, and teachers’ unions, the opposition to DeVos is encouraging—it’s about time we started really paying attention. After all, DeVos did not emerge in a vacuum. She is the conduit of the toxic corporate reform ideology that informed disastrous experiments in cities like Detroit and New Orleans to privatize public schools and channel funding into vouchers. And in the unlikely event that she doesn’t make it through the Senate confirmation process, she would be replaced by a savvier advocate for similar policies, like Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. public schools, who met with Trump during his transition meetings in November. Though Rhee took herself out of the running for the job, it’s worth noting that Rhee and DeVos are not far apart ideologically. Emma Brown of the Washington Post wrote that Rhee “has been a foremost voice pushing for the expansion of charter schools and a rare Democrat who embraces vouchers for private schools — on expanding such taxpayer-funded alternatives to traditional public schools, she and Trump see eye to eye.” While Rhee has hoodwinked scores of liberals into accepting her take-no-prisoners approach to reform, including Slate’s David Plotz, who suggested on his Political Gabfest podcast that her nomination would be a breath of fresh air, she is no friend to public schools. In fact, many advocates of public education fear that Rhee would be a more effective, and thus more dangerous, standard-bearer for the corporate reform movement.
But putting one’s faith in DeVos’s incompetency is not the answer. The only answer is to stay angry and keep paying attention. Now is the time to stand up for public education, no matter who ends up at the helm. Public education has been embattled for decades, and the attacks on our schools and teachers are delivered to the public in shinier packages every year. Reformers like Rhee pitch Reagan-esque overhauls with a populist patina, and we must be critical and skeptical of arguments that seem politically agnostic. Every documentary and bestselling book is more convincing and appears more nonpartisan. Vocally defend teachers’ unions. Continue to advocate for your children’s teachers and schools. Run for a position on the school board. Attend local events devoted to discussing public education. Learn about attempts to undermine public education in your area. Learn your elected officials’ positions on public schools. If they aren’t vocal proponents of those schools, you have a right to know why.
We can’t afford to go quiet once this crisis passes, since reformers can (and will) sabotage public education slowly and silently. Sen. Murkowski cited DeVos’s “lack of knowledge” as one of her deepest concerns about supporting her nomination. To be sure, DeVos knows enough to inflict catastrophic damage on American public schools. The more we know about her dangerous ideology, the better we can protect our most vulnerable American institution.
Bio: Paige M. Hermansen is an Assistant Professor of English at Westfield State University in Westfield, MA. Her research focuses on the rhetoric of education policy and the promotional discourse of colleges and universities. She is a proud member of the Massachusetts State College Association Union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English.