US education secretary Betsy DeVos is part of a Trump administration seeking to destroy the basis of American democracy from the inside out, writes GUY RUNDLE.
In June, the US Trump administration passed an ‘emergency ruling’ directing that $13 billion in coronavirus relief funding, intended to reduce inequality, be shared between the public and private school sector in a way that has seen tens of millions of dollars diverted away from low-income students.
Education secretary Betsy DeVos introduced the new regulation, forcing districts to distribute funding using a formula based on the total number of private school students in the district, irrespective of their socio-economic status. In Louisiana, for example, private schools are estimated to get more than two-and-half-times their old allocation. In another county, nearly four-fifths of its relief funding will go to private schools.
This, DeVos argued, because the relief funding was “meant to support all students”, not “discriminate against children and teachers based on private school attendance and employment”. Also, to stave off a “looming crisis” after dozens of private schools permanently closed as a result of the pandemic.
Trump’s inner circle was a gang of hard-right fixers, and the standard slash-and-burn Republicans crowded around him.
Such moves are typical of the people in Trump’s cabinet – assembled not by the president himself but by the political operatives around him. Just one example of the wild ride we’ve been on since the 2016 US election, when a gobsmacked world watched an equally gobsmacked Donald Trump give his victory speech.
During the election campaign, Trump said many things about social issues such as education and health, ranging wildly from standard right-wing rhetoric about small government to huge unspecific promises about a healthcare system “better than Obamacare”. No-one who knew anything was fooled. Trump’s inner circle was a gang of hard-right fixers, and the standard slash-and-burn Republicans crowded around him.
When his cabinet was announced, it turned out to be a rogues’ gallery of reactionary ideologues of an extreme type, from consigliere Steve Bannon to anti-immigration fanatic Stephen Miller. These were not merely small-government conservatives. These were people whose stated aim was to abolish or destroy the government they were being appointed to.
In his 2008 work The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank argued that conservatives in the Bush administration had changed their attitude from the conservatives of the Reagan era, who thought government should do less but still be efficient and effective. In the Bush era, they were out to show that government didn’t work at all, and to prove it by doing it badly.
The Trump administration has taken this one step further. Key leaders within the administration are seeking to abolish the very institution they are in charge of.
DeVos would like US public education to be dissolved entirely, replaced by a comprehensive voucher system, in which multiple private and community providers replace state-run schools entirely.
In an important new book, War for Eternity, Benjamin Teitelbaum writes that the team around Trump, led by right-wing activist Steve Bannon, were motivated by Bannon’s belief in an obscure occult political philosophy called (capital-T) Traditionalism, which believes the modern world was radically broken by its abandonment of religion and traditional values such as fixed gender roles and ethno-nationalist pride.
From this viewpoint, the modern era has marked a period of great decline. Renewal could only come through an act of enormous destruction. Trump, for Bannon, was “the man in time”, according to Traditionalist doctrine – a man who knows not what he is doing, and yet brings on the destruction from which renewal will spring. Renewal being, for such people, the restoration of a traditional order, in which religion returns to the centre of public and political life, traditional gender roles and the primacy of the family are restored, and ethnic identity is again the basis of community.
That may all sound cracked, but Teitelbaum’s evidence that much of Trump’s administration is driven by this is strong – though Trump of course has no real understanding of such. It is the people around him who push the agenda. And in the education department, that person is education secretary Betsy DeVos.
DeVos is from a conservative dynasty – her father, rich from auto manufacturing, founded the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group. They are members of the Christian Reformed Church – an austere, closed Dutch Calvinist sect that does not shun political involvement. (In Australia, leading conservative culture warrior Senator Eric Abetz is a member, and his ‘base’ is the church’s network in Tasmania). Believing the separation of church and state was a mistake, the ‘Neo-Calvinist’ tradition DeVos represents is at odds with the US’s secular ideology, which is the foundation of America’s public education system.
This sort of ‘wrecking crew’ conservatism thrives on crisis.
Betsy herself was a leading Republican organiser and committee chair in Michigan for three decades. In 1979, she married Richard DeVos, heir to the sales (some say pyramid sales) company Amway. With a combined wealth of $US5 billion, they put their money into pushing the Republican Party further to the right. In 1997, DeVos said she expected influence for their regular six-figure donations.
The couple sits at the centre of a network of conservative organisations dedicated to cultural struggles, part of the right’s new approach that sees politics as “downstream from culture”. Though DeVos doesn’t sit easily with the crazy Trump/Bannon gang by temperament, she shares with them the paradoxical position of wanting to abolish the department she heads. She would like US public education to be dissolved entirely, replaced by a comprehensive voucher system, in which multiple private and community providers replace state-run schools entirely.
This sort of ‘wrecking crew’ conservatism thrives on crisis; COVID-19 – both the disease itself and the Trump administration’s wilfully chaotic handling of it – has been a gift. Though there was nothing resembling a plan in place – the administration initially tried to avoid any sort of lockdown altogether – DeVos faithfully echoed the administration’s demand that schools re-open as soon as possible and refused to confirm that schools should follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. (DeVos’s relationship with science is iffy; she once suggested that a reason for teachers to be armed was to protect students against grizzly bears.)
The strategy appears to have been similar to the political warfare used against universities by the Morrison government here, which not only benefits conservative institutions but pushes public institutions to the edge of disaster.
After the first coronavirus relief bill was passed, DeVos experimented with diverting education funds from public to private. It was a relatively small amount, $180 million, which created ‘micro-grants’ for middle-and-low-income parents to take up private school places.
DeVos also distributed $350 million of a tertiary education relief fund using her personal discretion. Funds went to a bewildering range of very small colleges, many of whom had not asked for the money – including religious schools, plus a few generic landscape design and personal motivation outfits – which went against the guidelines for relief. In many cases that allowed the colleges to expand. Only $27m remained for colleges devastated by coronavirus. The strategy appears to have been similar to the political warfare used against universities by the Morrison government here, which not only benefits conservative institutions but pushes public institutions to the edge of disaster.
In May, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives put limits on DeVos’s discretion in distributing the $58 billion non-tertiary education budget. DeVos has tried to manoeuvre around that with a ‘guidance’: a set of regulations to distribute ‘equitable’ funds – designed to support the poorest students – equally across public and private schools. The guidance is non-binding; part of the continued political war. But it gives some school districts permission to redirect support to private institutions, in a country where many public school students depend on their school as a first-order welfare institution, for meals and basics, alongside education.
Education is just one area in which many thousands of working people took a chance on Trump, only to find themselves left to the wolves.
It’s a war on all fronts. But has DeVos bitten off more than she can chew? She is running a brutal war against the courts on tertiary student debt, trying to avoid a few paltry protections put in place against the predatory collection of loans. In the US, personal bankruptcy does not dissolve student debt, and wages can be part-deducted at point of employer payment, even where colleges are found to have misrepresented their offerings.
This has fallen particularly hard on black and Hispanic communities, who were targeted in the wake of the 2008 crash with ad campaigns designed to appeal to people with limited education, offering loan-deferred private courses costing $10–15,000 a year and more, as a higher-earning alternative to community colleges (which cost around $500 a semester).
DeVos’s resistance to debt relief and cancellation was not only in deference to the for-profit college directors she has brought into her department, but aligned with her Calvinist doctrine of taking ‘personal responsibility’ – even when they were created by fraud, bad information and marketplace pressure to have a degree for even basic work. DeVos’s claim that people applying for cancellation of such debts want “free money” repeated a barely disguised racist suspicion of non-white people in regards to money and welfare.
Exhausting, isn’t it? And that is but a fraction of the all-out war DeVos and her network have declared, not merely on progressive policies on public education, but on the viability of public education altogether. Chaos, despair, lack of hope – these are their weapons of choice.
Bizarrely, such wars against the public continue even when they appear to be doing damage in the polls. Trump’s approval ratings finally appear to be falling – due less to his many insults and press conference outrages than to his failure to deliver the real revival in the rust-belt that his supporters were hoping for.
Education is just one area in which many thousands of working people took a chance on Trump, only to find themselves thrown to the wolves. If he wins a second term, he will (clueless as ever) continue to preside over a team set on destroying the very basis of American public life.