You all know Betsy DeVos, right?
Of course you do, our current Secretary of Education. Look at her there, sprinkling imaginary pennies on a table before her. You are aware of her background in education I suppose? I mean she looks like a principal.
Now I should probably mention before going on that my wife is a middle school teacher. I used to be a high school teacher. Most of the people I know, friends and acquaintances and even some family are, in one way or another, attached to the world of education. And so statements like this tend to bother me:
“The school . . .was . . . ‘nothing more than adult daycare, a dangerous daycare.’ This is from a story she invented about the dangers of public school. Not a specific school, but public school in general.
I worked at a terrible school in an awful neighborhood. I picked that location because I felt I would work much better with the children there than in some snotty suburban school where the parents believe their teenage child instead of a teacher, denounce the suggestion that prince or princess could possibly have done the awful things they are accused of, and threaten endless lawsuits because they demand their child on the honor roll.
Don’t get me wrong, I worked with plenty of terrible teachers too. But they generally weren’t malicious, only not cut out for their job. They were disorganized, had no idea how to handle a room full of children; some weren’t very smart or did not have a handle on their chosen subject; there were even a handful who were prejudiced, some angry white dude teaching math, for example, in a school that is more than 90% black, ranting in the teachers’ lounge about how much he hates them. Of course there were some equal and opposite bigots, usually young, whiny liberals (of any race), whose English or Social Studies or Foreign Language or even Science classes were peppered with the occasional condemnation of the patriarchy and a dismissal of all those “old white men.”
What I am trying to say is that plenty of teachers should not be in their jobs.
But most of them belong there; most actually care about the children and their future. They care about the future or the nation, of the entire world. Most teachers, no matter how strong or weak they may be in various aspects of their job, are eventually ground into cynical or hopeless dust by the end of each school year. And for those of you out there not aware of just how difficult their job is, let me trim off some of the dismissals people often use to pretend like they have it rougher:
- They get the summer off. I don’t. Why do they think they have it so hard?
Most teachers do not have summers off. They teach summer school or become camp counselors (not an option this year), or simply phone through endless meetings about the drastic changes the next school year will impose. Know why they don’t take a break from working? Because they aren’t paid well enough for the exhaustive requirements that keep them working. It isn’t time off no matter what. It is decompression.
- I have to move and lift heavy things. I have to work twelve hour shifts (or longer) sometimes. My job is grueling. Teachers work, what, from 8:00 to 3:00? I would kill for hours like that!
Again, fundamentally wrong. Teachers have to grade papers, design lessons, talk to parents and administrators and their co-workers about upcoming departmental tests and cross-curricular projects, plan them, stay up well past midnight only to get up a few hours later, rouse their children (most have them), since they are teachers being far more demanding than most parents that their children excel in school for fear of professional embarrassment, then they drive or take the bus/train in, tutor students before school nearly every day, and then stay after the day is over to tutor or discipline more students. Oh! And they left desks and boxes of books and paper and sometimes throw their backs out too. And this does not include the most grueling and exhausting part of the job: the paperwork! Yes, there are mounds and mounds and files and documents and cabinets and district office storage room stacks of papers they need to fill out and then redo and then modify because the regulations have changed since the day before, then have the whole thing returned by a paranoid principal fearing that something may have been filled out wrong and how this may affect them (the principals also get yelled at constantly by their own superiors and have learned to take out their frustrations and to pawn off work on their subordinates), and so the teacher needs to start over again and again, being yelled at and yelling at everyone because, no matter how their fragile union might try to help them, they are also fearful that tomorrow they will lose their job. After all, everyone in charge, from department heads all the way to the Secretary of Education keep telling them they are doing everything wrong.
This list could go on for several thousand more examples, the number of specifics piling up while the arrogant businessperson, sitting in their cushy offices and imagining that their recent deal that has made only them a profit is the true thing that fuels the world; their small contract needing to be signed and initialed in four places, and the several jocular phones calls required constituting a day’s work that made them more money than a teacher makes in a month. The businessperson then condescendingly dismisses the teacher as some groveling rat wasting their time in a custodial job babysitting children. They even boast to their buddies over drinks about how much harder their jobs are than teachers.
Of course not all business works like that and plenty of others struggle with the frustration of cold calls and with jittery clients backing out at the last minute, and this is hard and frustrating, but it is nothing compared to a disaffected sixteen year old entering the building with an AR-15 and shooting up the place. Even the horror of workplace shootings pale next to this, the tragedy far greater when it is someone’s child.
But we were talking about Betsy DeVos, the leader of the entire system that trains students for the future. How is she qualified to run the Department of Education? Here’s her resume:
Born the child of a billionaire, Betsy attended elite evangelical schools throughout her childhood. She graduated from the incredibly expensive Michigan evangelical private Calvin College with a degree in business economics. She did some volunteer work while there on Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign. Upon graduation she achieved a position on the board of the Grand Rapids, Michigan mega church, the Mars Hill Bible Church where, in her early twenties, she was named an “elder,” which is applied to someone with special, elite wisdom, and was placed in charge of political operations. She was influenced by a 19th century political theologian, Abraham Kuyper, whose philosophy of Christian Democracy can be winnowed down into stating that “it’s time for the followers of Jesus to make a shitload of money!”
Subsequently the current Secretary of Education developed a reputation for spending less in order to make more for the board of directors. She was willing to fire hordes of people, thus cutting them off from the unemployment assistance she reviled, cheat at taxes with duplicate shell companies that showed losses, and imposing drastic morals clauses on anyone involved with any of her families’ vast business enterprises (including her brother, Eric Prince, who was once a Navy Seal, then founded the mercenary paramilitary corporation Blackwater after finding most of those he worked with in the military too soft).
Betsy married another billionaire, Richard DeVos, Jr., whose family runs the Amway corporation, once and always associated with scandal over numerous allegations of tax fraud, and the fact that their many cosmetic laboratories have ravenously continued experimenting on animals, blinding monkeys, for example, by seeing how much make-up a living creature can endure in their eyes. The marriage of the two made their family among the richest in the world, certainly ahead of Donald J. Trump.
Betsy, shortly after college, became a Michigan state Republican delegate, raising money (and contributing personally a great deal more) to help elect Republicans of her choice (mostly evangelical figures seeing the Rapture coming tomorrow). By 1996 these tactics and her financial pressure campaigns allowed her to rise to the entire state’s Republican chairperson, controlling the party with stubborn, self-serving demands, and an iron fist at those opposing her. Additionally she was involved in personally raising vast sums of money to support every Republican presidential candidate running. And by “vast sums” I mean levels of cash once against the law–once considered federal crimes–quietly shuffling the money around to even more shell companies, buying television (exclusively smear) ads, and even paying partisan journalists to make questionable, and occasionally disproven allegations against Democrats running for high office.
But what does any of this have to do with education other than for future cutthroat political operatives and activists? What is her history with the job she now holds?
Well, she’s also experienced a number of enormous failures in her professional career, which I suppose could offer an object lesson. She lost more than a hundred million dollars investing in a scam blood testing corporation, Theranos, founded by a 19-year old who had seven hundred million dollars to spare on fake technology that did absolutely nothing. Betsy and her husband also produced a disaster of a big budget Broadway show, Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,
which was not just trashed by both critics and the handful of people who went to see it, but was laughed at, an industry joke. The story dealt with an early 20th century apocalyptic radio evangelist (it is loosely based on a true story) who was kidnapped and murdered. The shows’ lyrics were written by Kathy Lee Gifford.
But the main company Betsy was involved with in the days leading up to her nomination was with a shadowy research company called Neurocore, whose objective is to cure children of depression, attention-deficient disorder, autism, and other psychological and neurological disorders with techniques straight out of A Clockwork Orange. These include showing the children movies, non-stop, and then pausing to give them a jolt of electricity every time they get distracted. The films shown were, of course, mostly religious fare, manipulative cartoons and evangelical preaching, attempting to convert and then use the results as propaganda.
Eventually Neurocore came under fire by the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission for using “untested and unproven devices” and “questionable methods that might put the subjects in danger.” Neurocore simply paid their fines and ignored these governmental sanctions. DeVos stepped down from the board upon her nomination, but vowed to keep her financial interests in the company. The lawsuits against the company, which continue to this day, have subsequently diminished, many being quashed outright. Others involving damaged children (the test claim the kids were already damaged), saw families were paid off to drop the suits.
And yet none of this background, really, has anything to do with education, other than the attempts at brainwashing of her one company. So why is she qualified?
There are three phrases DeVos has been repeating for years, every time drained of a little more meaning. She says, “School choice,” “School vouchers,” and “charter schools.” Let’s take them one at a time, comparing what they are supposed to mean versus what DeVos, now as Secretary of Education, imposes upon them.
This is how DeVos has described the public school system, that free education standard that, sadly quite often, under serves or even betrays students. She says that public school is “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end.” Of course she has never personally been involved with public schools, herself and her own children squirreled away from reality in their zillionaire’s paradise, offered every advantage the Ivy League professors can provide for third graders with ample funds to keep up with the latest technological innovations. Here is a picture of the sort of computer room I was able to take my students to:
But the “school choice” platform makes the claim that parents can send their child to any school they want. Of course this isn’t true, not by any stretch of the imagination. Schools have limited space, they must keep dense and often contradictory records of progress (school progress mostly, not individual student development). And who will be taken first under such a plan, regardless of the disingenuous offer of financial aid? The people who can pay. Maybe one or two disadvantaged superstars will be exploited to show how fair the school is. And why do they need to pay at all? Isn’t financial aid merely a loan, with high, cloying interest rates that follow your family even after the grave? Public school is paid for by local taxes, money required to spend in the first place. If those federal loans were offered to the public school system itself, couldn’t things be better for everyone?
Shortly before her nomination, DeVos was the chair of two education related organizations, the Alliance for School Choice and the American Federation for Children. They sound wonderful, don’t they? Great titles. They must really want to help everyone succeed! Prior to all of this Betsy and her husband had founded the All Children Matter political action committee, a truly hypocritical name that was exclusively about ways to remove public schools entirely, and transform the educational system of the United States into a for-profit business, gobbling up the resources once sent to inner city schools and stuffing them into increasingly expensive and elite private and “charter” schools. The goal of this committee had nothing to do with children–certainly not what was best for them–but reeks of a Dickensian corporation, taking all the money away from the poor and leaving them destitute, homeless, and criminal, wandering the murky streets, knowing nothing beyond base survival. These organizations were more about closing schools than improving the lives of children and their families.
The School voucher program, which is almost the creation of DeVos herself, has been bandied around (the phrase) by parents all over the nation unhappy with the schools their children attend. It’s like a lottery ticket, a desperate game where parents dream of hitting the jackpot. Parents are required to submit bids (subsidized bids for the truly destitute), and then the selection is mostly like a keno wheel, snatching out names and then closing the contest with a few left-over places for friends and the wealthy. It is a fundamentally unfair system based on chance, and without the stated generosity so many people still cling to.
My final year of teaching was mostly made up of the debate to change my school into a charter school. We were all told, the staff and students alike, that we were fired. But–but!–we all had the opportunity to reapply and maybe luck into a spot where half of the staff and student body were already pre-selected. We were all told this at the start of the school year. How do you think that year went in a rough urban school where the teachers were scared or disgusted or frustrated, or had entirely given up, and the students, many of them, were terrified of the future? It went so badly, in fact, that a Pulitzer prize winning series was written on the outbreak of school chaos, violence and otherwise, which had never come close to reaching this level before. I even witnessed a fist fight between two teachers in the hallway, students gathered around and making bets on who they thought would win.
Charter schools are no better or worse than public schools. There are very good ones and very bad ones. The only real difference is with how the teachers are treated. There are no contracts. There is certainly no union. You can be fired for anything, at any time, be it something legitimate, or simply because a principal doesn’t like you. Because a student invented a story. Because a parent complained you gave their child a ‘C.’ Everything is open. It is “school choice.” The school can chose how they treat people, staff and students alike.
It’s about money, about profit, about the great corporate gains that our Secretary of Education cares about and has nothing to do with children or the future. It is a con, a scam, and it has been marketed so well to an unhappy nation that many have been convinced it is the only way to go. What will happen will be disastrous. Know how we constantly discuss the division between rich and poor, about the “elites” versus the underprivileged? When large groups of the underprivileged are outright denied the chance for an education, what hope will they have for the future? It seems intentional–it is intentional, and it goes beyond race and is primarily about social class. The President and Secretary of Education (among others in government) have no idea whatsoever about the actual ground zero experience of how schools operate and how children are supposed to learn. All they can whine about is how schools teach some sort of bias (it is only a handful of inept teachers who do this, preaching on social issues that should not be discussed from a partisan side in the classroom. Do not think that this is merely a liberal phenomenon, because it certainly isn’t), when the reality is that those schools they target don’t even have enough money to provide text books or computers to teach much of anything. Students are bored and teachers exhausted by the repetition of numbers and basic facts they’ve been hearing since they began going to school, and they cease learning anything, eventually. What the curriculum requires, now, is training for state and federally mandated standardized tests, which are further repetitions of the same old, same old everyone had lost interest in years before. The results of these tests are responsible for school funding. Everybody panics, administration and teachers overwhelmed, screaming at everybody, and students either scared into compliance, as though if they do not do well their lives are over, or angrily defiant, crumpling up papers until teachers give up and privately fill in the answers for them in a closed room.
And with all this in mind, with all the stress and outrage over the future of education, we come to the terror of Coronavirus. People in the Trump administration are saying on TV that every parent wants their kids back in school. I am a parent. I certainly want this too. But there is a twist here, and it goes beyond the need for schools and the necessity of a return to a structured life (especially for children). It is about the gross indifference of the administration–especially the Secretary of Education.
She is a smug woman, Betsy DeVos, smiling at and laughing while repeating the same prepared line, refusing to engage in questions, and dismissing anything difficult as someone else’s problem. She claimed in an interview to “not (be) an expert on viruses,” and so she couldn’t answer an important question about whether schools should go to full capacity (she is far from an expert on education too, as her resume clearly shows, although she is an excellent businesswoman). All she could do was repeat “Children want to go back to school.”
Now let’s take a final moment before we conclude to consider an issue much larger than what is offered by the administration. The disease, as Trump supporters like to claim, has less impact on children and this is true. Then they advance a falsehood that children do not get it at the same rate. Yet they carry it widely, like bats waiting to bite. They infect each other, infect their families. Teachers . . . teachers are always coming home with whatever illness is circulating in school, and they infect their own families, and the virus spreads drastically in such situations, and plenty of teachers and members of their families have the dreaded “pre-existing conditions.” (I am a type one diabetic). This thoughtless push to return to a world that is still far from normal does not consider any of this. It certainly rarely mentions teachers. In fact, I have thus far heard only one district superintendent mention teachers at all, the head of the Atlanta school district, who no doubt has higher political ambitions. She said what I am saying about the potential spread. She was worried that rushing things back to as they were is going to cause an explosion of illness worse than any we have seen before.
She’s right, you know. Children, again, are disease carriers. Sometimes they don’t get sick, simply sneeze and infect you. A return to a full classroom is a disaster waiting to happen, no matter how difficult this will be. Online learning (I am surprised DeVos isn’t favoring this, being for profit as it is) is not the same as in person, of course. For some students, who need the face-to-face instruction, it may very well be a disaster. And certainly parents need to work to raise money, and some of them haven’t the patience, or the time, or the basic knowledge to home school, but the fact that the teachers, whose job it is to educate their children, are ignored goes to the very heart of the heartlessness of the threats against school districts presently being made.
Every one of those teachers and educators I know–all of them–are terrified not just by the uncertainty, but by the very danger public policies seem to want to ignore. The teachers are being ignored. There seems to be no consideration at all over just how hard they work, how dedicated they are to other people’s children, and how dangerous forcing them back into a job with overcrowded classrooms, close contact, and the impossibility of getting every student to wear a mask while sitting a foot and a half away from each other, is for the entire community.
Perhaps someone will teach Betsy DeVos a lesson. Perhaps she can be made to realize just how near-sighted her ideas are. But this will also likely be the death of public schools, something she has pushed for her entire life, now in a position to impose such an apocalypse, abiding her religious faith in Jesus and greed, accomplishing her goal of permanently dividing America. If only someone would learn . . .
Copyright ©2020 Lance Polin