The Unbundling of Public Education
by Jennifer C. Berkshire
he confirmation hearing of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will forever be remembered for the candidate’s legendary ineptness. But while DeVos’ suggestion that schools in the west be armed in the event of a grizzly break in made her instant fodder for Internet memes and a Saturday Night Live skit, residents of her home state of Michigan barely recognized the portrayal of a ditzy lady., DeVos is much better known as the Republican-party patroness and political brawler who helped turn a blue state red, crushing unions, weakening democratic institutions and attempting to criminalize resistance along the way.
In 2012, DeVos and her husband Dick, a one-time GOP gubernatorial candidate and heir to the $5 billion Amway fortune, pulled off the unthinkable, they made Michigan “right to work.” In the very state that gave us the industrial union movement, workers can no longer be compelled to join a union. The DeVoses pulled this off thanks to sneaky late-session dealings by a legislature that they have spent millions to shape and influences, but their animus towards unions dates back generations; it’s in their blood. Betsy grew up a “Prince,” the daughter of a self-made millionaire and rabid anti-New Dealer. (Betsy’s brother is Erik Prince, founder of the private army contractor Blackwater). The family she married into was equally rabid, and even wealthier.
But while unions have long been a target of the DeVoses and their allies, they’re not the ultimate prize. That would be the Democratic party, of which Michigan’s unions, and the teachers unions in particular, are the primary funders. Not long after Michigan joined more than two dozen mostly Southern states in the right-to-work column, the GOP legislature enacted another change that made it illegal for employers to process union dues. (The same measure made it easier for employers to withhold contributions to PACs from employee paychecks). The legal changes have proved to be devastatingly effective, greatly diminishing the ability of unions, not just to maintain political influence in the state but to provide basic representation to their members. In Michigan, unions have long provided the “foot soldiers” for the Democratic party: the people who help turn out voters and go door to door for causes. In 2016, Michigan went for Trump by 10,000 votes, while the GOP, which already controlled all three branches of government here, further extended its majorities.
Listen closely and you’ll notice that when Betsy DeVos talks about education she sounds a lot like Paul Ryan talking about health insurance. They’re “freedom to choose” people. Ryan describes a free market dream, whereby consumers, who are no longer compelled to purchase insurance, may now shop for the plan that best fits their needs. DeVos envisions an education utopia in which the “government school” is no longer the “monopoly provider.” “She’ll put the parents before the institutions,” is how former Presidential contender and DeVos superfan Jeb Bush put it. It might be more accurate to say that DeVos seeks to separate parents from their institutions. In Michigan, the DeVoses have sought to undermine the very institutions of public education: the elected school boards, the ability of communities to pay for their schools, the rights of residents, particularly African Americans, to have any say over their schools at all.
“They have succeeded in diminishing the public school establishment financially and weakening it,” former Michigan State Board of Education member John Austin told me when I interviewed him earlier this year. “This is about taking down the existing public school infrastructure and the Democratic party.” Yet another recent law passed at the DeVoses behest would have prohibited local officials from communicating with their constituents about ballot measures, like the tax overrides that are used to raise money to fund school projects. A judge tossed the measure on the grounds that it was unconstitutionally vague, but its intent was clear. What better way to convince parents to abandon their public schools than to allow them to crumble?
In Silicon Valley the term “unbundling” has become a buzzword to describe the taking apart of products and services from the companies and institutions that once provided them. Applied to schools this means that students can access the education learning options without the democracy-burdened institutions that Betsy DeVos and her ilk refer to derisively as the “blob”: the teachers and their unions, the school boards and the superintendents—anyone who has a stake in the schools. But in these Trumpian times education institutions have emerged as a key source of resistance of his agenda. Colleges and universities were quick to condemn the Trump Administration’s travel ban, while school districts, including Boston, Chicago and New York, have announced district-wide policies to protect undocumented students.
The DeVos agenda of “unbundling” parents and students from the democratic institutions that make up the education infrastructure is aimed squarely at this kind of resistance. Last year when Detroit teachers participated in “sick outs” to protest appalling conditions in the city’s schools, and the treatment of Detroit’s teachers and students, the response of DeVos’ allies in the legislature was to attempt to criminalize resistance. A law filed while the protests were still underway would have stripped teachers who engaged in illegal protests of their certification for two years. “They were trying to send us a message to just keep quiet. If you speak up and fight back, we’re going to come after you,” says Stephanie Griffin, a Detroit teacher who helped to organize the sick outs.
While DeVos’ first weeks as the nation’s top education official were rough by any measure, she is a natural fit for the modern Republican party; she shares its firm commitment to undermining the Left by limiting democratic participation. But her move to Washington has resulted in an unforeseen development. Back in Michigan, the grip of the state’s most politically powerful couple appears to have suddenly weakened. Community pressure in Detroit has forced the state to hold off on shuttering dozens more public schools there, while key DeVos education priorities have been shelved, and an effort to eliminate the state income tax a la Kansas, collapsed. Most significantly, the powerful education lobbying group that DeVos founded, the Great Lakes Education Project, essentially imploded this spring after its head made a joke about domestic violence. Since Trump first nominated DeVos, her record in Michigan has been subject to intense media glare. What that spotlight turned up is an ugly legacy that is fueling deep resistance in her home state—something that should encourage anyone who believes in public education.
Jennifer Berkshire writes the blog Have You Heard and is the co-host of a biweekly podcast about education in the time of Trump. Follow her at @BisforBerkshire.