Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos champion the privatization of public education in the United States. They support rightwing attacks on public schools as “government schools,” as if something was inherently wrong with public education programs.
Trump and DeVos hold virtual religious certainty that businessmen, bankers and hedge fund financiers ― the people they praise as “entrepreneurs” ― will provide a better education for American children than teachers and public schools. The proposed Trump/DeVos education budget redirects more than $1 billion from public education to school voucher plans that subsidize private, charter, and religious schools.
For those of us who do not share their certainty, Trump World schools offer a frightening future. Twenty percent of new businesses fail in the first year of operation. About half do not survive five years. Only a third celebrate a 10th anniversary. This may not be a problem for the fast food industry and corner grocery stores, but it will be a disaster with millions of displaced young children if schools become start-up businesses.
DeVos, a Michigan billionaire with ties to the Amway fortune, dismisses public schools as a “dead end.” She bankrolled a private school voucher measure in Michigan, spent millions to elect state legislators committed to cutting public school budgets, and promoting for-profit charter schools. She and her children all attended religious academies rather than public schools. In a 2001 interview with her husband, DeVos explained, “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”
Unfortunately, we already know what Trump World schools look like. “Entrepreneurs,” charter gurus with political connections, and religious promoters are already operating “schools” with government and business support. This is what Trump World schools look like in the United States and other parts of the globe.
Entrepreneurial Fraud in Liberia
Third World countries like Liberia in West Africa are desperate to improve educational opportunities for their young people and are very short on cash. They provide fertile ground for for-profit edu-entrepreneurs and for business schemes that will be transferred to the United States if Trump and DeVos get their way.
Liberia acknowledges that the access and quality of its education system lags behind most if the world. Only 38 percent of its children attend primary or elementary school. Only 25 percent of its adult women read on a functional level. Out of desperation, it turned over management of 93 public schools to eight private contractors who promised to deliver better education at the same cost. The teachers in these schools were supposed to remain government employees with equivalent salaries and benefits, the schools would continue to be owned by the government, and the contracting companies agreed to provide free education open to all. While the government only allocates $50 a year per pupil in its traditional public schools (this is hard to believe and I wonder if it is accurate), Liberia agreed to provide an additional $50 per student to the contracting schools during the experiment.
After a year, an independent review found that students in the contracting schools did perform better on standardized tests than did students in traditional public schools. But it also found that to justify turning the entire Liberian school system over to private for-profit companies, the contracting companies cheated. One company, Bridge International Academies, with financial support from the Gates Foundation and mega-corporations like Pearson Education, spent over a thousand dollars per student as an investment in its own future profits. This allowed them to hire additional teachers, lower class size, and skew results. Bridge also “improved” test results by throwing thousands of children out of their schools, discharging three-quarters of the original teachers, teachers who still had to be paid at government expense, insisting on additional technology, and bringing in their own scripted learning programs that the government would have to pay for in the future.
One town, Kollita Wolah, was outraged when Bridge took over a school built by the townspeople, and immediately decided to reduce the number of children attending the town’s school from 75 to 45. They told parents their children could attend government schools in the nearby city of Gbarnga. But it meant either a 30-minute walk along a busy commercial road or transportation fees parents could not afford to pay. In the end, many parents were forced to pull their children out of school.
The review concluded that the contracting companies failed to demonstrate their their entrepreneurial approach would work in normal Liberian schools receiving standard funding. Bridge entrepreneurs sounds just like an American charter school company. What a model for the United States to emulate!
Religious Schools in Brooklyn
Brooklyn, New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are block voters, trading political support for public dollars and the right to operate unregulated religious “schools.” Their own children become victims of miseducation in these schools and official educational neglect. Almost 60,000 children and adolescents attend ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, known as yeshivas, in New York City. Trump and DeVos want to provide federal vouchers to pay to support these religious schools.
Dozens of these religious schools in Brooklyn fail to meet the state legal mandate that they offer students an education “at least substantially equivalent” to public schools. Local activists from Young Advocates for Fair Education, some of whom were once students in these schools, accuse public officials of willfully and illegally ignoring what is happening in these schools for fear of alienating voters. According to Naftuli Moster, the executive director of the group, children attending these schools, but especially boys who are expected to lead deeply religious lives, complete their “education” with poor to nonexistent English and math skills. Chaim Levin, a graduate of Educational Institute Oholei Torah in Crown Heights reported, “I attended school Sunday through Friday, every day all day, and I did not learn how to read or write in the English language. I was not taught history, science, or geography, and I learned no math skills. The only thing we studied was texts from the Old Testament and the Talmud.”
Young Advocates for Fair Education found that some of these yeshivas already receive millions of dollars in public funds. If these were Islamic religious schools, there would be national outcry with Donald Trump leading the protests.
Charter and Religious Schools in Michigan
Michigan is Betsy DeVos’ home state and the place where she has done the greatest damage to public education promoting charter and religious schools. An independent review by the Brookings Institution ranked Michigan last among all states in improving student “proficiency.” Another study, a 2016 analysis by the Education Trust-Midwest, found 70 percent of Michigan charter schools in the bottom half of the state’s school rankings. The study concluded that as a result of “charterization,” Michigan had declined from being an average performing state on math and reading tests to one of the worst, in just 10 years.
The Potter’s House Christian school, with campuses in Grand Rapids and Wyoming, Michigan, are a pet project of DeVos and her husband Dick. Between 2001 and 2013 the DeVos foundation donated over $2 million to the school. Besides being a donor, Betsy is a school volunteer and a member of Potter’s advisory board. In speeches and interviews she praises the school, with 540 students in grades pre-K through 12, for giving “kids the chance to succeed and thrive.” DeVos claims her involvement there inspired her to advocate for education-related causes.
But Potter’s House is not just any school. According to its website, it is a “Christ-centered school, birthed in prayer and rooted in Scripture” that equips its students to serve God and society” by challenging them and their families “ to grow in their personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Every employee, and I assume every volunteer including DeVos, must sign a pledge to endorse its religious philosophy before working in the school. The pledge includes affirming that “the Bible, God’s Word, is infallible,” “The major goal of education is to bring each child into his or her full potential in conformance with the image of God,” “the world was perfect at creation, but sin intervened, severing all people’s perfect relationship with God,” and that God “requires that individuals and social groups follow in obedience to His word.”
The Christian evangelical movement has an irrational side that opposes science and reason and does not belong in public supported schools. Answers in Genesis is an “apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively.” Its focus is on “providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.” According to Answers in Genesis, “The Bible” is the “history book of the universe” that “provides a reliable, eye-witness account of the beginning of all things, and can be trusted to tell the truth in all areas it touches on.”
Their website has a long defense of creationism and its place in education. They argue “Creation was by the direct action of the Creator as opposed to some naturalistic process. Creation took place in the beginning and was finished and complete. Creation was not spread out over a major portion of the supposed evolutionary vast time history of the universe. Creation was by the word of the Creator ... Ultimately, the controversy about the age of the earth is a controversy about the authority of Scripture. If millions of years really happened, then the Bible is false and cannot speak with authority on any issue, even the Gospel.”
If Trump and DeVos have their way religious mysticism will replace science in many schools and a new generation of climate change skeptics will have to confront God’s wrath in the next wave of once-in-500-years hurricanes that seem to occur on a weekly basis. Covefefe!
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The Network for Public Education and New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) are organizing parents, teachers, and the public to flood the SUNY Trustees and the SUNY Charter Schools Institute with protests against the certification waiver proposal. Their opposition to the waiver is supported by the Deans of Schools of Education at eighteen colleges in the State University of New York system. September 11, 2017 is the last day to submit online comments to the Charter Schools Institute. More information is available at the United University Professionals website.