By Shea Howell
November 28, 2016
With Donald Trump’s pick of Betsy DeVos to head the US Department of Education, the country is in store for a direct assault on public education. This is not hyperbole. Betsy DeVos has been the main architect of the systematic destruction of Detroit Public Schools and all those schools in Michigan serving poor, urban, black and brown children.
Devos is widely acknowledged as the “main driver of the entire state’s school overhaul.” In Detroit this “overhaul” has been a disaster. For most of her adult life Betsy DeVos has pushed an extremist, right wing corporate agenda to privatize schools, attack unions and promote conservative values.
As educational leader Diane Ravitch noted, DeVos “does not hide her contempt for the public schools.” National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia said, “her efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students.”
Destroying local democratic control has been a key strategy in her efforts to privatize public education. After a failed effort in 2000 to get vouchers into the Michigan Constitution, DeVos launched a national organization to encourage pro voucher candidates and conservative values. Today they claim a 121-60 win-loss record. She heads the American Federation for Children that dumped millions into efforts to promote schools of choice.
DeVos has millions to dump. Her husband Dick DeVos is heir to the Amway fortune and her brother is Erik Prince, the founder of the notorious private security firm Blackwater. Blackwater reinvented itself since being exposed for murders in Iraq and is tied to the security forces at Standing Rock.
In 2014 Mother Jones documented the investment of the DeVos and Prince families in ideologically extreme causes. They reported:
THE DEVOSES sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement. Since 1970, DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes—think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay-marriage and anti-tax ballot measures.”
The failure of her schemes to improve education in Detroit is well documented. Detroit has the second largest share of students in charter schools, 44 percent, coming behind New Orleans. Every year nearly $1 billion of taxpayer money goes to charter schools, most of them for profit enterprises and most doing a miserable job. In addition they are defunding public schools, forcing students to endure deplorable conditions and impossible learning environments. The failure of the DeVos initiated programs have lead to a recent federal lawsuit claiming the state has utterly failed in its obligation to provide basic literacy for children.
Just as Detroit shows where DeVos will try and take the country, we also have some solutions. We have a long history of independent, culturally strong schools that have supported and loved our children. Networks of teachers, parents and students are coming together to develop new forms of education that engage students as “solutionaries,” using their imagination and creativity to solve community problems.
Recently the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools emerged as an alternative to the destruction of public education. Inspired by the freedom schools of the African American liberation movements its mission is to create “free, African-centered, loving educational experiences for Detroit children and families, to mobilize community volunteers and resources, cultivate community strength and self-determination, and build movement-based futures.”
Information about the schools can be found at the Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management and through the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American history that hosts one of the five active sites on Saturday mornings.
The election of Donald Trump brings a vast, right wing force together to turn every public activity into a private profit center. It will attack basic notions of democracy, decency, and public trust. But in many places people have been resisting these very forces for a long time. We need to draw on the lessons we are learning to protect our children and secure our futures.