You probably saw the quote from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos equating US public education with Soviet East Germany. That was a good headline (and great clickbait), but it's worth it to go and take a look at the full context of that quote. This will be long, but I can't help it-- I find strolling through the inside of Betsy DeVos's head kind of fascinating. I'd love to have her come join me at the local coffee shop for an afternoon.
The occasion of the speech was a presentation to Young America's Foundation at the Reagan Ranch Center. Young America's Foundation was founded in 1969, and it is as conservative as can be-- it is one of the co-founders and forces behind the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The organization bought the Reagan ranch "Rancho Del Cielo" in 1998 with the help of $10 million from Richard and Helen DeVos (Betsy's parent-in-laws).
So on this occasion DeVos was very much among her people, and we've seen in the past that these are the occasions on which she tends to let down her hair, stop playing to a wider audience, and let's her plutocrat flag fly.
Sharon Statement (Young Americans for Freedom were eventually absorbed by Young America's Foundation) . That's a complicated topic on its own, as it represented a bit of a break with conservative thought at the time (which was struggling a bit with the not-terribly-popular Richard Nixon in the White House). The ideas of the Sharon Statement were carried into the 80s when all those college radicals grew up-- political freedom is inseparable from economic freedom, government should be limited and the Constitution revered, free market is best of all, communism must be defeated, and, my favorite, individual freedom and the right to govern come from God. If it has always seemed to you that folks like DeVos believe in a divine right of rule by rich free marketeers-- well, that didn't come from nowhere.
DeVos offers her own paraphrase, including that the free market produces the most prosperity and lifts the most people out of poverty. Curiously, "communism must be defeated" becomes "America must always win."
Reagan, she asserts, embodied these principles more than anybody, and she admires and tries to emulate his "sunny demeanor and eternal optimism." She locates Reagan in history much as I would expect someone of my generation (DeVos and I are about the same age). When we were teens, the US was still drafting young men to go to Vietnam for a war that looked more and more like a losing clusterflap. Nixon went to China and then blew up his Presidency in a scandal that seems quaint by modern standards. We headed off to college under Gerald Ford, who seemed like a nice guy who would just keep things quiet, and he was followed by Jimmy Carter who, God bless him, is a far better former President than he was a President. Carter was an engineer and a DC outsider, and couldn't get a damn thing done. The era of cheap gas ended, and government didn't fix it-- they just tried to manage it with rationing plans. And other countries around the world made us look like powerless chumps, from oil rich nations to the Iranians who held our people hostage. What we should have been learning was that the world was more complicated than we'd thought, but mostly the country just fell into an emotional slump.
DeVos says, "The malaise was real, but it didn't develop overnight," and I wonder if her young audience was puzzled by that, but my generation recognizes the reference to Jimmy Carter's speech about at US "crisis of confidence." That was the background against which Reagan, who had failed miserably in previous attempts, ran a successful Presidential campaign- oozing confidence and can-do and absolutely mastering the art of convincing the new brand of Sharon Statement conservatives that he was giving them what they wanted, when in fact if Reagan appeared today he would be driven out of the GOP for his flabby RINO policies. But that's a conversation for another day. Here's the part that DeVos still responds to-- and which shows one of the few connecting lines between Reagan and Trump:
The difference between East and West Germany—between tyranny and freedom—was stark. Communists, however, had conned too many in the West into thinking that there was no difference. That a nation without God was just as valid as one Nation under God. That we’d best learn to “coexist.” That they would never be defeated.
But Reagan said, no. “We win, they lose.”
She points to the rubble of the Berlin Wall as a sign of Reaganesque triumph, and that sets uip her pivot. There's another wall that needs to be torn down, old and "devastating" to those who live on the wrong side of it. It's a wall in education that keeps too many students from learning.
It separates wealthy, powerful, or well-connected students from those who aren’t wealthy, powerful, or well-connected. They have about as much education freedom in America today as East Germans had freedom to do anything back then.
Too many students are up against another “empire”—governments, unions, associations of this, and organizations of that. It’s an education cabal that protects the status quo at the expense of just about everyone else.
This is half of a good analogy. She is correct about the separation between the wealthy well-connected and those who are not. But her preferred solution-- vouchers and choice-- does not destroy the wall. It does not send resources to the people living on the non-wealthy side of the wall. Vouchers give a select few permission to travel over the wall. Charter choice systems allow people from the wealthy side of the wall to go set up schools on the poor side-- again, for a select few. Voucher and choice are a bad solution precisely because they don't break the wall down or bring equity to life on the two sides of the wall.
The status quo problem here is not the evil empire. It's the wall, erected by the wealthy to make sure that everyone else on the other side stays in their proper place. And vouchers and choice are lousy solutions precisely because they are "solutions" crafted so as not to disturb the status quo of that wall of wealth.
But DeVos instead is going to paint pretty much everyone as part of an evil cabal.
She invokes A Nation at Risk, the report that the Reagan administration ginned up to create a sense of crisis about education. And next she moves on to the price tag.
We've spent a trillion dollars at the federal level on education. What did we get for it? An unnamed Stanford and Harvard study, she says, shows that for fifty years "all the additional spending did nothing to improve the gulf in student achievement between those with freedom and those without." Even without specifics, this is meaningless-- the measure is unclear but probably a standardized test, and a thousand variables are also in play, particularly if you understand that "freedom" here mostly means "money."
But DeVos wants to renew the call-- "we are a nation at greater risk." More government is not the solution, "Yet like a broken record, sycophants of 'the system' insist otherwise." (Sycophants of the System sounds positively Agnewesque, but it would make a great band name.) But now DeVos (or her speechwriter) are fully wound up and ready for battle.
Well, our strategy is this: students win, they lose.
What an odd notion-- that teachers and unions and the vast system of people who work in public education with not a great deal of pay are all an evil force that must be defeated, that in order for students to be educated, all these other folks must lose. And really-- lose what? But DeVos is on a roll.
Students are going to win with freedom.
Freedom from government, because DC has a "stranglehold" on America's students, "starting with all the social engineering from the previous administration." This goes straight to the heart of the DeVosian style worldview-- society should have order with people in their proper place, and attempts to mess with that natural order are "social engineering," an attempt to mess with how things are supposed to be. So all those things like an office of civil rights are a bad thing. All those protections that DeVos has rolled back for various groups of non-straight non-white students are, in her mind, an attempt to mess with the natural order of things.
How exactly that is a "stranglehold" on America's students doesn't make much sense unless you mean wealthy white males who are being forced to put up with all these other people who are not in their proper place, or perhaps those no-white non-straight non-male students who are being robbed of their right to prove that they deserve to be with the Betters (or not). For them, I guess, DeVos is going to keep pulling back on "staggering regulatory overreaches" including Title IX. And she's not going to make any new rules ever, because "family is the first school" and the system is supposed to serve them. As always, DeVos will not even pretend to see the issues that might arise when the system, or some portion of it, does not serve a family well. Did a private school refuse to serve the needs of your family because you're black? Don't expect DeVos to start socially engineering things on your behalf.
And then there's this newly minted talking point that reformsters keep pushing:
So, let’s stop and rethink the definition of public education. Today, it’s often defined as one-type of school, funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of “the public,” then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to “the public.” That should be the new definition of public education.
Yes, DeVos isn't going to be making new regulations or "meddling in matters properly left to communities and to families," but she is going to redefine words. By this reasoning, McDonalds is a public restaurant. Public education is facilities that are owned and operated by the public, which serves all the public, and which are accountable to the public.
She's also going to push her Education Freedom Scholarship voucher program. She says it won't create a new federal program or grow the federal government, which I guess comes close to being true if her intention is for the program to operate without any oversight whatsoever. It will of course blow a $5 billion dollar hole in the federal budget, but if we squint and pretend it didn't happen, maybe we can just stick the states with the tab for this.
All students should be free. Multiple pathways. Lifelong learning and freedom are inseparable. And students have many opportunities thanks to an "on-fire economy."
Are you still here? Good-- because DeVos is now going to explain what's wrong with society today. Also, after breezing past the cognitive dissonance that must come from holding images of Reagan and her present boss ("sunny demeanor and eternal optimism" indeed), DeVos will now peg the cognitive dissonance meter:
Learning is the pursuit of truth, but students are often told there is no such thing as truth. Acknowledging it means certain feelings or certain ideas could be wrong. It is much more comfortable to say: “there is no truth. There’s nothing that could challenge what we want to believe.”
But learning isn’t about feeling comfortable. It’s about thinking. And it’s a willingness to engage with any and all ideas—even ones with which you disagree or ones that aren’t your own.
Truth can be pursued, and it can be known. All students need the freedom to learn it.
And people say she's dumb. So there is an absolute Truth and it can be known, but you have to be willing to engage with ideas that you disagree with, but if you know the Truth, why would you? Has DeVos ever shown an inclination to engage with ideas that she disagrees with, or does she prefer to label people with those ideas as a "cabal" and "sycophants of the system"?
And then there's this:
Ultimately, our education freedom agenda is about acknowledging that each of us is ennobled with a unique purpose and unique talents to fulfill it. We all need the freedom to discover and develop our abilities and aspirations—and then, to do something constructive with them… for ourselves, our families, our communities, and for our country.
This doesn't sound bad, but it's important to understand that it's completely consistent with a Bettercrat view of the world-- that each of has a purpose and while my purpose might be to inherit billions of dollars, your purpose might be to polish the hubcaps on my car quietly and without making eye contact with me, and if we all just find our place and know our place and settle comfortably into our place and not try to social engineer our way out of our place, then the world will work smoothly as God wants it to
DeVos wraps it up by evoking Reagan's "city on a hill" which is of course John Winthrop's "city on a hill" which is a primary text for American exceptionalism, the notion that we really are better-- well, at least some of us are. And DeVos has disavowed racism, and that's typical Berttercrat as well-- any person of any race or religion (or at least a couple of them) could turn out to have the Better qualities that let them rise above their place, but they have to have the chance to prove themselves and that means none of that social engineering so that they can prove that they can win playing by our rules (which are, of course, God's rules and the only True correct rules).
And it does come back to winning. Because if you have the Truth, then the people who see things differently must be either stupid or selfishly evil and deliberately pursuing Wrong. So there's no need to talk to them or engage with them or especially try to understand why they see things differently from a different point of view-- you just have to defeat them. And if you are Betsy DeVos, it must seem as if there are oh so many of them, everywhere, all the time, and it must be a great relief to sit in a room with folks who understand the Truth.