Tag Archives: Richard DeVos

Choosing to End Public Education

25 Feb

By Thomas Ultican 2/25/2022

In 2017, the new President of the United States was explicit in his intention to end public education. He appointed a dominionist as secretary of education and regularly invoked the libertarian inspired pejorative “government schools” when referring to public schools. He loudly supported a movement to end public education which started in earnest five decades before he took office.

Its foundation was the economic theories of Milton Friedman and opposition to integration in the old south. Neoliberals, libertarians and their billionaire financiers have unsparingly attacked public education. Their fundamental weapon for ending the public school system is “choice.”

The newly published book Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy is a compilation of 29-essays edited by David C. Berliner and Carl Hermanns. All of the essays are written by accomplished award winning educators and historians. Gloria Ladson-Billings, known for her work on Culturally Relevant Pedagogy wrote,

“Some years ago, when the school choice movement began to gain attention, I argued that we were looking at the beginnings of the plan to destroy public education. There are those who declared I was being ‘alarmist.’ But I made this pronouncement after looking at the ways other aspects of public services have faced severe erosion.” (Education 226)

She also speculated that a contributing factor for the loss of consensus to support public schooling is the long-term campaign by powerful interest groups to portray public education as failing.

In another essay, Education Historian and former US Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch reported that in 1984 the Republican Party for the first time called for prayer in school and “choice.” She stated,

“Despite the sordid history of school choice and its origins in the segregationist movement, the term became a rallying cry for critics of public education. Right-wing think tanks, libertarian billionaires, and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council – an organization that brought together far-right extremists, big corporate money, and other who wanted to reduce government regulation and unleash free enterprise – unleashed an unmodulated campaign of vilification against public schools.” (Education 27)

Duke University Professor of History and Public Policy Nancy MacLean, this past September published a new research paper at the Institute of New Economic Thinking – How Milton Friedman Exploited White Supremacy to Privatize Education.” She is the author of the must read book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.” In her new paper MacLean states,

“This paper traces the origins of today’s campaigns for school vouchers and other modes of public funding for private education to efforts by Milton Friedman beginning in 1955. It reveals that the endgame of the “school choice” enterprise for libertarians was not then—and is not now–to enhance education for all children; it was a strategy, ultimately, to offload the full cost of schooling onto parents as part of a larger quest to privatize public services and resources.”

A New Trojan Horse

The Gateway Drug: Charter Schools

An article by the Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker states,

“As noted in a 1996 Detroit Metro Times article, while the DeVos’ ultimate aim was to abolish public education and steer public funds to parochial schools, they knew not to be blatant about that goal. Thus, they chose a vehicle that blurred the lines between public and private schools- a “gateway drug” to privatizing public education: charter schools.”

After John Walton read the 1983 Reagan administration publication ‘“A Nation at Risk’ with its ominous warnings about the failings of public education,” he convinced his family to direct their philanthropy toward reforming public education. Throughout the 1990s he campaigned endlessly for new voucher legislation and saw his efforts repeatedly rebuffed. Shortly before his death in 2005, John joined Don Fisher and Buzz Woolley in establishing the Charter School Growth fund. Around the same time the Walton Family Foundation began financing charter school startups in communities across America.

Jeff Bryant interviewed Jeffry Henig of Teachers College about the Walton’s move to supporting charter schools. Bryant asserted,

“Henig believes many conservatives view charter schools as a way to ‘soften the ground’ for potentially more private options, though he isn’t entirely sure ‘the Waltons view charters as a Trojan Horse for eventually providing vouchers universally.’”

Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has carried on a relentless attack on public education that continues today. One of the images she sells is viewing students as having a backpack full of taxpayer money which each school age child’s parents spends on education services. In her essay “Public Education at a Crossroads: Will Horace Mann’s Common School Survive the Era of Choice?” educator, administrator and public school advocate Carol Burris warns,

 “Given the anti-tax, anti-government proclivities of those who espouse this type of funding scheme, it is likely that fewer and fewer tax dollars would be place in the backpack over time. Parents once again would assume the sole responsibility for educating their children, buying what services they could afford, with the poor relying on charity.” (Education 239)

A Pillar of Democracy: Public Education

In the essay “Values and Education Policy” Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd tell us, “Good education policy making is rooted in coherent and enlightened educational values.” (Education 33) They begin by discussing the values expressed by Horace Mann who successfully implemented his vision of “common schools.” Today’s public school system is very much a result of that vision and his leadership. Some of the issues Mann addressed are the same issues driving “choice” today. Fisk and Ladd share,

“The idea of taxing all citizens, including those of the privileged classes who already enjoyed access to private education, in order to finance the education of poor and working-class children was viewed as both wasteful and as an infringement of property rights. Mann argued that free schooling served the collective interests of all citizens, rich and poor alike. ‘Jails and state prisons are the complement of schools,’ he wrote. ‘So many less as you have the latter, so many more you must have of the former.’”

“He famously declared, ‘Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery.’” (Education 34-36)

The authors conclude,

“Proponents of citizenship education are struggling to find a place in school curricula. Powerful private foundations and individuals, including the recent U.S. Secretary of Education, are raising millions of dollars to undermine the concept of universal education by privatizing public education and, by means of vouchers and charter schools, to break the link between publicly supported schools and democratically elected officials. Racial resegregation of schools is now pervasive, and courts are retreating from the notion that public funds should not be used to further sectarian religious instruction.” (Education 45)

For a long time, Richard and Betsy DeVos have been working to obliterate the separation of church and state, and privatize public education. In a 2001 interview conducted at the Gathering, Richard  lamented how awful it was that public schools had replaced churches as the center of communities. He did not identify whose church would be accepted as the new community center, but it seems certain to be some flavor of Christianity.

Public Education Shares Informed Discourse

Thirty-two of America’s most accomplished education thinkers and practitioners share their insights. All of them have more than two-decades of experience practicing, researching and debating education policy. None of them are billionaires trying to offload their tax burden or implement self-centered libertarian ideology.

In these pages, there is general respect for Horace Mann’s education advocacy and the public school system but also recognition of associated problems. The common schools were not just the “great equalizer” but also the great homogenizer. They indoctrinated students with a protestant Anglo-Saxon ethic. There is nuanced discussion here about the great foundation for democracy (public schools) needing to inspire not indoctrinate. And some of the authors reject the “great equalizer” belief as a myth.

Professor Ken Zeichner discusses the extreme segregation of public schooling in the United States, speculating they are “possibly more segregated today than it was in the 1960s.” (Education 178) He says in non-dominant communities, families and community members are excluded from real participation in school affairs. He recommends community centered engagement versus school centered engagement. Unfortunately he reports, “Both federal legislation and school practices have encouraged school-centric as opposed to community-centric family and community engagement, creating mutual distrust between families and schools.” (Education 179)

University of Georgia’s Peter Smagorinsky shares, “According to [Betsy] DeVos, those who direct the prevailing K-12 system are ‘trapped in an outdated education model,’ beholden to the ‘wrong and manipulative’ theories of Horace Mann and John Dewey.’” For people not on the extreme right this sounds like nonsense. However, Smagorinsky cautions that people’s positions “are largely emotional and the argumentative reasoning is used as a post hoc means of justifying an established position, … it’s unlikely the Culture Wars will end any time soon, because no one can win them with logic or facts.”

I will end my taste of what is in this wonderful compilation with a quote from one of the editors, David Berliner. He ran through a litany of the scandals arising from both the charter and voucher school movements fueled by unregulated taxpayer dollars. Then personally gratifying to me he wrote, “But Tom Ultican, a thoughtful and passionate defender of public schooling, has a reminder to Americans about the origins of the charter and voucher movement in our nation,”

“Birthed in the bowels of the 1950s segregationist south, school choice has never been about improving education. It is about white supremacy, profiting off taxpayers, cutting taxes, selling market-based solutions and financing religion. School choice ideology has a long dark history of dealing significant harm to public education.

“Milton Friedman first recommended school vouchers in a 1955 essay. In 2006, he was asked by a conservative group of legislators what he envisioned back then. PRWatch [published by the Center for Media and Democracy] reports that he said, ‘It had nothing whatsoever to do with helping ‘indigent’ children; no, he explained to thunderous applause, vouchers were all about ‘abolishing the public school system.’” (Education 280-281)

Why I Support Public Education

29 Mar

By Thomas Ultican 3/29/2021

The original cause for my supporting public education was that my rancher father married a school teacher. Growing up in southern Idaho, I learned many philosophical and theoretical reasons for supporting the establishment and maintenance of public schools from my mother. However, it was from watching mom and her dedicated colleagues in action that I learned to truly respect and appreciate public school.

I remember stories of my father being warned that he better not treat that woman wrong. For several years in a row she won the Elmore County sharp shooting contest. She didn’t like to chop a chicken’s head off so she would pull out her rifle and shoot it off.

Mom had some old school attitudes but maintained a mind of her own. There was a period in which she had to come home at lunch time and milk the cow. One Friday, after having to chase the cow across King Hill creek again, she had had enough; didn’t discuss it just loaded that cow into a trailer and took it to market.

In my home, there was no doubt about the value of education and also an abiding belief that the American public education system was unparalleled. My father was a high school basketball referee and an ardent supporter of music study.

As was common in the community, school events were family events. Helping the local school was one of the main missions of our civic organizations whether it was building viewing stands at the football field or sewing costumes for school plays.

My grandfather was an immigrant from Scotland who came to America on the Lusitania. Three years after his arrival that ship was sunk by a German U-boat killing 1,800 passengers and further pushing America into engaging with World War I.

It was through family in Scotland that my mother became familiar with the British Education system. She learned of its high stakes testing which was deciding a child’s education path; if that education would continue and whether it would be academic or vocational. To her, the great advantage for America’s schools was they did not have these kinds of tests determining a child’s future. American students were not immersed in testing hell.

Instead of being sorted out by testing, American students had multiple opportunities to reenter the education system in whatever capacity they desired. Immature 11-year olds, did not have their futures decided by dubious testing results.

Still today, Idaho has a greater than 90% white population making it one of the whitest places in the world. It used to be even whiter.

I did not meet a Black person until I was a 17 years-old high school student. That year the University of Idaho Vandaleers gave a concert at my high school. A local rancher’s wife threw an after party for the choir and that is where I met Ray McDonald. Not only was he a talented singer, he was also one of the top running backs in America who would soon be drafted in the second round by the Washington DC professional football team. All I really remember is I was star struck and he was a friendly guy who played piano.

Although there was very little racial diversity in the community there was significant religious diversity. We had Mormons, Mennonites, Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Assembly of God and other denominations attending our schools.

In a 2001 interview conducted at the Gathering, Richard DeVos lamented that it was awful that public schools had replaced churches as the center of communities. He did not identify whose church was going to be accepted as the community center.

The unifying factor in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho was the public schools. Children from rich families and poor families grew up together in those schools. At school functions, parents from the disparate religious sects came together and formed common bonds. Political decisions concerning community governance were developed through these school based relationships.

Public schools became the foundation for democratic governance in the region plus it was literally where people voted. To me, it is unfeasible that a healthy American democracy does not include a healthy public school system.

America’s Founding Fathers Believed in Public Education

The second and third presidents of the United States advocated powerfully for public education. Thomas Jefferson saw education as the cause for developing out of common farmers the enlightened citizenry who would take the rational action a successful republican democracy requires. Jefferson contended,

“The qualifications for self government are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”

When Jefferson who was a former ambassador to France was queried about the French Revolution, he responded, “It has failed in its first effort, because the mobs of the cities, the instrument used for its accomplishment, debased by ignorance, poverty and vice, could not be restrained to rational action.” He called for the establishment of universal free public education claiming it as a requisite for the survival of a democratic republic.

Jefferson and his peer John Adams were integral to the founding of the United States. Jefferson is credited as the main author of the Declaration of Independence. Our system of government with its bi-cameral legislative branch, judicial branch and executive branch came about in great measure because of John Adams’ advocacy.

Like Jefferson, Adams also saw public education as crucial for the survival of our fledgling democracy. In a 1775 essay, he wrote:

“reformation must begin with the Body of the People which can be done only, to affect, in their Educations. the Whole People must take upon themselvs the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expences of it. there should not be a district of one Mile Square without a school in it, not founded by a Charitable individual but maintained at the expence of the People themselves”

Shortly before the American Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had published the controversial novel Emile, or On Education. He was widely condemned by the ruling elite for the religious views expressed in the book. However, the main portion of the book was about education. Rousseau’s character in the book was a tutor for children of the wealthy. That was the nature of education in the 18th century. Only children of the wealthy had the wherewithal to be educated by private tutors or in one of the few private schools.

Jefferson and Adams were calling for egalitarian progress giving common people the tools required to be self-governing. They were calling for a public school system.

Between 1820 and 1860, the Massachusetts education advocate Horace Mann – more than any other American political leader – was responsible for the nationwide spread of public schools. With the challenges of industrialization, immigration and urbanization, public schools became the tool of social integration. Horace Mann became the spokes-person for schools being that instrument.

It was Mann’s point of view that children in the common school were to receive a common moral education based on the general principles of the Bible and on common virtues. The moral values to be taught in public school were Protestant values and the political values were those of republican democracy.

Integrating the Protestant religious view into the common schools caused a split in communities. The burgeoning Catholic immigrant population did not want their children indoctrinated with an anti-Catholic ideology. Following the civil war, these influences irrupted into the “Bible Wars.” Author Katherine Stewart shared that it was in this atmosphere that “President Ulysses S. Grant declared that if a new civil war were to erupt, it would be fought not across the Mason-Dixon Line but at the door of the common schoolhouse.”

Stewart also noted an insightful admonition from Grant:

“Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards I believe the battles which created the Army of Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”

Early in the 20th century, public schools had been established serving every community from coast to coast. The results from this vast American public education experiment shine like a lighthouse beacon on the path of Democracy and social happiness. A nation that entered the century as a 2nd rate power ended the century as the undisputed world leader in literacy, economy, military power, industrial might, cultural influence and more.

Today, unbelievably, more and more forces are agitating to undo public education and even American Democracy itself.

As the 21st century dawned, the American public education system was facing a billionaire financed attack. Instead of financially enhancing public schools, libertarians called them “failures” and too expensive. They called public schools “monopolies” shutting out private business that would surely outperform “government schools.”

Hopefully the aphorism attributed Lincoln is true: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”