Monday, March 12, 2018

The New Pro-Choice Movement: What is Betsy DeVos Talking About?

By now, you've probably seen at least portions of Betsy DeVos' mostly incoherent, completely embarrassing 60 Minutes interview in which she seemed to be utterly unprepared for hard-hitting questions like "what is a school?" 

In fact, the whole thing could have just been deleted scenes from this parody video and made perfect sense. 

Despite all the incoherent rambling, there is a theme that can be pulled out from a close look at the transcripts, and I'd like to take a moment to try to figure out what's going on here. 

DeVos doesn't seem to be able to answer any questions about her plans to improve schools, her understanding of what problems schools face, or what exactly her job is, but there is one topic that she speaks about with more clarity than others: she's pro-choice. 

No, no. Not that kind of pro-choice. She's pro school choice. Let's take a look at her own words to try to get some idea of what that might mean to her. 

Here are some parts that really stood out to me. 
"we should be funding and investing in students, not in school — school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems." 
"I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them." 
In response to questions about anti-discriminatory practices to keep minority students from being disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts: "Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids."  
When asked if a false rape accusation and a sexual assault are the same: "I don't know. I don't know. But I'm committed to a process that's fair for everyone involved."
Okay. The woman is a horrendous speaker who can't keep a sentence straight to save her life, but setting that aside, there are some themes that have come up again and again. She promotes "choice," which is her shorthand way of pointing to a voucher system, one where public school dollars are allowed to be used in other ways. Not all school choice advocates believe in the same things, however. As this article explains:
"The choice movement is not monolithic; all choice supporters don’t support all forms of choice and all do not have the same motivations behind their advocacy. Choice critics are not monolithic; some, for example, accept some charter schools but not other forms of choice. A key fissure is between the free-market believers who want very little regulation — who are mostly libertarians and Republicans, including DeVos — and those who believe in heavier regulation and more accountability, and tend to prefer charters over vouchers. The latter includes some Republicans and many Democrats, including former president Barack Obama."
DeVos' brand of "choice," as evidence by her excessive use of the term "individual" during her rambling, is one that demonizes public institutions. The narrative is that public school teachers are lazy, overprotected by unions, and committed to an outdated system rather than individual student success. As this piece from The Atlantic explores, though, throwing our hands up on public education is a dangerous way to try to "fix" our educational problems:
"Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole. As a result, a cynicism has taken root that suggests there is no hope for public education. This is demonstrably false. It’s also dangerous."
I'm a homeschooling mom whose public schools did not meet her child's needs, so you might think that I would be invested in DeVos' notion of "choice." Sure, being able to reallocate my tax dollars into building my private home library might sound nice, but what's the point in educating my daughter if there isn't a world worth sending her into?

Public schools are at a moment of transformative crisis. And here I mean crisis in the original Greek sense. A krisis was a turning point, a moment of decision. Our public schools are trying to face a very difficult challenge of meeting the needs of an unknowable future while simultaneously battling a war on many fronts for their very existence.

I wrote recently about diverging paths in education, how elite members of society are opting for schools that look very, very different from our public schools. I wrote then that this is a troubling sign for me. While private education has always had more resources than public education, the drive to turn private education into a completely different philosophical endeavor seems especially sinister as we sit at the cusp of a technological revolution that is likely to disrupt entire economies and possibly even what it means to be human.

When DeVos talks about individuals and turns her back on "institutions," on "systems," what she is really saying is that those who already have the means should climb while those who do not should be damned to fall not to the lowest rung of the ladder but off the ladder entirely.

And this woman is the head of our educational system. This would be like the person running the hospital saying that she doesn't believe in allowing greedy doctors to operate in an institution of healthcare and that we should instead shut it down and be allowed to individually spend that money stocking our own medicine cabinets. All you could afford was a band aid and some cough drops? Too bad. Hope you stay healthy.

Individuals matter. They matter a lot. But systems exist because humanity is more than the sum of its parts. We have become the species that we are not as a series of individuals operating in successive boxes but because we overlap, learn from, and grow with one another. That requires institutions and shared knowledge. That requires intermingled value systems that, yes, are messy and sometimes undergo painful transformations.

I believe we are at that moment now, and it is that vulnerability that has allowed someone as patently unqualified as DeVos to sit at such an important position at such an important time.

No matter how disenchanted you may be with public schools, no matter how alluring the siren call of "individual choice" may sound, please remember that we are all in this together. There can be no winning the game if the board is thrown in a dumpster fire.

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