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Why Betsy DeVos Matters to Canadian Education

New US secretary of education, a billionaire heiress, has for years bankrolled efforts to strengthen private schools.

Crawford Kilian 11 Feb

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Hardly anyone outside Michigan and the Republican Party had ever heard of Betsy DeVos until Donald Trump nominated her as his secretary of education. Then American educators went to battle stations, and it took a tie-breaking vote by Vice-President Mike Pence, acting as chairman of the Senate, to get her the job.

By then it was clear she is utterly unqualified for the job, and I won’t waste your time repeating what’s been said online about her. She has spent years wielding her inherited wealth to aggressively support the replacement of public schools with charter (private) schools, paid for by tax-funded vouchers.

She also got there by a disastrous failure of U.S. educators to explain the purpose of public education — and Canadian educators have done no better.

When Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America in 1839, he noted the effects of education:

“It cannot be doubted that in the United States, the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic…” Ask an American about his country, Tocqueville went on, and: “He will inform you what his rights are, and by what means he exercises them; he will be able to point out the customs which obtain in the political world… The American learns to know the laws by participating in the act of legislation; and he takes a lesson in the forms of government, by governing.”

“In the United States,” Tocqueville summed up, “politics are the end and aim of education; in Europe its principal object is to fit men for private life.”

Framing modern public education

This was a relatively new kind of education that had evolved out of the New England religious school system. And it was in New England in the 1830s that Horace Mann framed the modern concept of the secular public school:

Such public schools have always had their problems, but they educated generations that would have had no chance for an education at all. Such schools were a “virtuous circle”: as the public grew better educated, the public schools kept improving. Families with strong religious views and upper-class families could send their children to private schools and pay for the privilege.

Private schools could assimilate their pupils into a religious or class community, but the public schools assimilated theirs into the larger community. As immigrants poured into the country between the Civil War and the First World War, their children spoke German or Italian or Yiddish at home and English at school — and then at work.

Proprietors of their own country

Even those who left school after Grade 6 or 8 understood something about their new country and the opportunities it offered them. They had been incompletely educated, but their schools had given them a foothold in a democracy and shown them that they had a stake in it. They understood they could have a say in how they were ruled — that they were not just citizens but proprietors of their own country.

Canadian public education followed a similar pattern, though religious schools were (and are) more influential in many provinces. Educators in both countries understood they were not just training kids for jobs in the current economy but also educating them as citizen-proprietors of a democratic nation.

This is not a universally endorsed idea. Many fundamentalist religious communities are more concerned with getting their kids into the next world than with them succeeding in this one. The rich and the aspiring rich still prefer to put their kids in economically segregated schools where they can mingle with other kids who will be valuable connections in the future. And even the public schools now de-emphasize civics and history, preferring to promote job skills and personal development.

After about 1980, Canadian and U.S. parents began to see public education as a consumer service for themselves, rather than training for their kids as the country’s future owner-managers.

As a service for parents, public education left a lot to be desired: they had to pay for it whether they approved of it or not, it wasn’t a reliable babysitter (professional days! snow days! summer!), and it might put their kids in contact with people of no possible future benefit as connections. They wanted a “European” education for their children, fitting them for private life rather than political engagement.

Enter Betsy DeVos

By the 1990s, the idea of charter schools appealed to such disgruntled parents. Betsy DeVos — who was educated at Holland Christian High School and Calvin College — became a major force in the Michigan charter school movement thanks to her inherited wealth.

So when I wrote a long article on charter schools for the Georgia Straight in 1996, it included numerous mentions of what was going on in Michigan (though no mention of DeVos). Charter schools were billed as a way to break the “monopoly” on education by funding anyone (trained or not) who wanted to teach kids.

My conclusion then was that the charter school was an interestingly radical idea but it wasn’t radical enough: “Most charter supporters,” I wrote, “want to prepare their children for the next century with ‘traditional’ schools designed for the 1920s.”

Two decades later, charter schools look all too radical — a conscious effort to subvert Horace Mann’s vision of public schools as funded, controlled, and maintained by the public. Instead, parents get a voucher for the cost of a year’s education and can spend it wherever they please, including on schools run by religious groups, cranks, or charlatans.

DeVos, born into one fortune and married into another, poured millions into charter schools and into the campaigns of Republican politicians who would back charter schools despite their mixed success rates. Now she has her reward: a chance to undercut secular public education and impose vouchers and charter schools. In effect, she has a chance to privatize the system by fragmenting the public into individual anxious families, each family with a voucher to invest or squander as it sees fit.

Enemies of Canada’s public schools will take heart from DeVos’s appointment, demanding more tax support for private and religious schools and less for what the Fraser Institute is already calling “government” schools.

Canadian public school educators need to lead the charge against this subversion of democracy — not to protect their jobs, but to protect their country and one of its key institutions by Trump’s plutocrats and their local cheerleaders.  [Tyee]

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