There could not be a worse time in history for Betsy DeVos to serve as this country’s secretary of education. It is not merely that the billionaire campaign donor has spent decades working to subvert public education; it’s that she refuses to recognize—or care about—the fact that her boss is far more concerned about his own reelection prospects than the health and safety of students and their families, teachers, and other school employees at a point when the United States is experiencing another Covid-19 surge.
President Trump is obsessed with reopening public schools in the fall—just as he was obsessed with opening businesses in the spring—because he thinks that doing so will create a sense of normalcy in the midst of the health care crisis that he has woefully mismanaged and the economic meltdown that has extended from it. Trailing in the polls, the president is determined to rush children back to school and get workers back to their offices, warehouses, and factories, in order to foster the fantasy that he has led the country out of the mess he made and now merits a second term. “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” screams Trump’s Twitter feed, where he has played politics with people’s lives since the pandemic began. “The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”
In fact, Democrats and rational Republicans have for months been struggling to figure out when and how it might be safe to reopen schools. So, too, have the unions that represent teachers and advocate for public education. What they are saying is that any reopening must be done right. What Trump is saying confirms that he does not care if it’s done wrong.
The president is attacking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that are essential to a safe and functional reopening of the schools; he’s threatening to withhold resources that are desperately needed to maintain public education—be it in-person or virtual—and he’s turning a debate that should be grounded in science into a political food fight. “Their goal isn’t safety, it’s politics,” warned American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who urges students, parents, and teachers to listen carefully to what Trump and his education secretary are saying about reopening. “Are they putting the safety of kids or educators first? No,” she argues. “Do they have a plan to actually reopen schools or resources for it? No.”
The president is literally retweeting game show host Chuck Woolery’s paranoid rants about how “the most outrageous lies are the ones about Covid 19. Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most, that we are told to trust. I think it’s all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election. I’m sick of it.”
There’s a political sickness in this administration. And DeVos is spreading it. The longtime critic of public education heads an agency that claims its mission is to “play a leadership role in the ongoing national dialogue over how to improve the results of our education system for all students” by “disseminating the latest discoveries on what works in teaching and learning, and helping communities work out solutions to difficult educational issues.” Instead of leading, however, she is amplifying the anti-scientific claptrap that passes for Trump’s strategy for reopening schools.
Disregarding and disrespecting CDC guidelines—“Lowest Risk: Faculty and students engage in virtual-only learning options, activities, and events.… Highest Risk: Full-sized in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities”—DeVos rushes in to announce: “There is nothing in the data that would suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous to them.” Educators and public-health experts, she says, are just “fearmongering and making excuses.”
“Kids need to be in school. They need to be learning, they need to be moving ahead. And we can’t—we cannot be paralyzed and not allow that or not be intent on that happening,” says DeVos, who casually suggests, “Where there are little flare-ups or hotspots, that can be dealt with on a school-by-school or a case-by-case basis.” In an interview last week with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, DeVos echoed Trump’s threats about withholding funds from schools that fail to start full-time, in-person instruction in September. “We are looking at this very seriously,” she said. “This is a very serious issue across the country.”
She was even more outspoken in another appearance on Fox, where she told Chris Wallace, “American investment and education is a promise to students and their families. If schools aren’t going to reopen and not fulfill that promise, they shouldn’t get the funds. Then give it to the families to decide to go to a school that is going to meet that promise.”
That was DeVos returning to one of her favorite themes: taking money that’s intended for public education and, instead, using it to fund private schools.
“It’s the move towards privatization,” said Jamaal Bowman, the public school principal who was recently nominated for a House seat in New York. “It’s driven by market-based ideology and the so-called, quote-unquote ‘choice movement.’ So when we talk about vouchers and money moving with kids at the whim of the parents, that’s what we’re talking about. And it’s an example of disaster capitalism within the public education sector.”
Former secretary of labor Robert Reich was blunt: “Don’t let DeVos use the pandemic to privatize education.”
Representative Ayanna Pressley was blunter. The Massachusetts Democrat jumped on social media to tell DeVos, “[Y]ou have no plan.”
Pressley spoke to the secretary of education in language that parents across the country will understand: “Teachers, kids and parents are fearing for their lives. You point to a private sector that has put profits over people and claimed the lives of thousands of essential workers. I wouldn’t trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child.”