Betsy DeVos’s Educational Trumpism

After a meeting with Donald Trump in December, Bill Gates was upbeat about Trump’s education policy positions. Gates explained that “in the same way that President Kennedy talked about the space mission and got the country behind that,” Trump could “organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and [promote] American leadership through innovation.”

Gates’s comparison was peculiar, to say the least. The Apollo program represented a massive government commitment that, adjusted for inflation, cost nearly $98 billion in federal dollars. In contrast, Trump supports a massive divestment in government commitments to education. In fact, Gates’s comments came just weeks after Trump selected Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor and proponent of school privatization, as his choice for Education Secretary.

How did calls to privatize public education come to be seen as an ambitious “New Frontier” for government policy? What makes this brand of reform so compelling that it has attracted its share of Republican and Democratic champions, even in an era of intense polarization? Why are billionaires like DeVos and Gates granted such an outsized role in deciding public education policy?

The appeal of market-based education reform arguments parallels the rhetorical strategies that bolstered Donald Trump’s credibility as a candidate. This becomes clear when reading a reform speech [transcript] delivered by DeVos at SXSWedu in March of 2015. DeVos’s speech is boilerplate “school choice” rhetoric, touting reforms like vouchers, charters, education start-ups, and market-based accountability. For a speech about “innovation,” little of it is innovative. Nonetheless, the speech taps into political distrust and business “common sense” in seductive ways that anticipated Donald Trump.

Rejecting Politics

“Even politicians damn an opponent’s motive by calling it political.” This observation from the critic Kenneth Burke resonates powerfully in 2017. Donald Trump’s success throughout the primaries and general election relied on his performing as an “outsider,” someone who operated outside the norms and restraints of his “establishment” adversaries. For education reformers like DeVos, this type of appeal is nothing new. As she well knows, accusing someone of partisan motivation on school issues can be particularly damning. Who would dare to put politics ahead of our children’s futures? In this way, a school reformer can easily tap into audiences’ political distrust.

DeVos began her speech by invoking the same political cynicism that drove Trump’s rise. “How many of you believe that our education system will ever be fixed by political parties?” Anyone who raised their hand, she said, was “delusional.” Her approach was to argue that Democrats and Republicans both stood for ossified interests. Not her, though. She had left the Republican Party, and now had “the freedom to be “politically incorrect” and “blunt” and “brutally honest about the status of K-12 education in America today.” In short, she foreclosed the possibility of institutional actors enacting any sort of change. Only the blunt outsider, willing to speak truth to power, can say what needs to be said.

DeVos chose an obvious target for her bluntness. “Government really sucks,” she said, “and it doesn’t matter which party is in power.” To justify this sweeping statement, she issued several more. “Committees kill all the really good ideas.” “Government tends to favor one size fits all solutions handed down from the central command.” Government “fears entrepreneurs, open systems, and crowd sourcing.” DeVos did not elaborate on these points. She did not have to. They have been repeated enough to become accepted premises that DeVos could use to generate an atmosphere of cynicism. Over the next year and a half, Trump would do the same.

The Business Metaphor

In the vacuum left by the untrustworthy government, brilliant entrepreneurs would save American education. DeVos’s speech used the metaphor that “school is a business” to make its point—metaphors are useful rhetorical strategies because they compare two things, allowing audiences to understand one thing by relating it to another. In this case, Devos called the school system the “education industry.” She then blithely refused to acknowledge this as a rhetorical choice: “Let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry.”

Metaphors have consequences. Metaphors determine how policies will, and will not, be discussed. It mattered, for instance, that Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” instead of declaring a public health crisis. And it mattered that DeVos called education an “industry.”

By comparing education to the business world, DeVos automatically made constant “innovation” into a value that trumped all else. The comparison was simple: “Our education delivery system in America is antiquated and it is quite frankly embarrassing.” To defend this point, she did not point to concrete shortcomings of traditional classroom teaching. Instead, she simply appealed to the “common sense” of business. Innovate is what businesses do. The auto industry survived obsolescence by innovating. (They also survived through a government bailout, but this point did not fit into DeVos’s narrative.) In contrast, Kodak refused to change, and so died. The lesson for education, DeVos proclaimed, is simple: “either perish into obsolescence, or… revolutionize and thrive.”

According to DeVos, education is not just any type of business. It is a “delivery system.” This metaphor designated education as a one-directional process, the moving of content from providers to students. Lamenting an absence of entrepreneurial spirit in education, she feared “we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Paypal, Wikipedia, or Uber.” Consider the commonality of these companies. Each has perfected the efficient “delivery” of something, be it data, consumer products, financial payments, or human beings. With the exception of Wikipedia—a donation-based non-profit—each has raised ethical red flags in their quest for efficiency.

Based on DeVos’s metaphor, education became a “product” to be efficiently “delivered” to consumers. Improving it would be as simple as making the Khan Academy more accessible, or freeing schools from the wiles of bureaucracy. The appeal of this metaphor is that it oversimplifies a complex endeavor. Trump’s presidential campaign, with its emphasis on “making the best deals,” would not stray far from this approach.

Seeing through Educational Trumpism

Like the President-Elect who appointed her, DeVos used her speech to sow seeds of distrust in the entire political process. This is problematic because public education depends on a faith in public goods. If the audience accepts the premise that both parties will fail the education system forever, then the government is no longer an actor in the educational process. Institutions cannot save us. The “public” in “public education” has been lost.

The business metaphor offers no suitable replacement. Calling education an “industry” is blind to the flaws of businesses, including the ways that companies like Amazon or Uber trample on workers’ rights to do their “delivering.” Although this metaphor may focus our attention on ways to streamline educational practice, sometimes the most “efficient” way is not the best way to learn. Often, learning requires complex interactions between teachers and students, not just a “delivery” of content. If good becomes synonymous with efficient, we will struggle to provide a good education to every child.

Ultimately, these strategies of cynicism and simplification have worked for reform proponents like DeVos since at least the 1980s. As a result, Donald Trump arrives to the presidency with a readily-available rhetoric of education that coheres with his broader political philosophy. This language of “Educational Trumpism” necessitates an assertive defense of public goods, institutions, and schools.

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