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Betsey and Donald

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pose for a photo with students of Saint Andrew Catholic School (Shealah Craighead)

Defunding the Public Schools, Using Pandemic as the Excuse, Is a Trump/DeVos Disaster Capitalism Venture to Shift to Privatized Charter Schools

The coronavirus pandemic is creating opportunities for “disaster capitalism” to shake-up and change fundamental social and economic contracts in the US. Nowhere is this more evident than in Donald Trump and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’ attacks on the institution of public education.

Confronted with increasingly negative polling on his performance as commander-in-chief during the pandemic, Trump appears to believe that the physical reopening of schools this fall, is key to recovery – damn the consequences. In a mid-May story reflecting on decades long attacks on public education, Jacobin’s Katie Ferrari wrote: “The state of public education has long been dire. And coronavirus has made things worse.”

In Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, “The Shock Doctrine: The rise of Disaster Capitalism” she brought forward the idea of “disaster capitalism,” which bluntly theorizes that during a time of economic crisis, caused by natural disasters, disease, the war on terror, or economic recession, neoliberal elites will push policies exploiting those disasters.

In the book, Klein quoted Nobel Memorial Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

The health and economic disasters wreaked by COVID-19 provide perfect cover for Secretary of Education DeVos’ to push forward the long-held conservative agenda of dismantling public education under the rubric of “school choice.”

Disaster capitalism has already manifested itself during the pandemic. As Ms. Magazine’s Carrie N. Baker reported in mid-June, “In factories and warehouses, from grocery and retail stores to transportation and delivery companies, many employers across the country have demonstrated a willingness to put their employees’ health and lives at risk to make a profit—companies like Amazon, Costco, Walmart, Door Dash, Uber and Lyft, to name a few. Despite this rampant irresponsibility, corporate allies in Congress and state houses across the country are introducing bills to immunize corporations from liability for the resulting harm to employees and communities.”

It now seems that the pandemic is providing another opportunity to attack and fundamentally undermine our institutions of public education. Public education has seen rocky progress but has been historically understood as bedrock of “equal opportunity” since the mid-nineteenth century. The health and economic disasters wreaked by COVID-19 provide perfect cover for Secretary of Education DeVos’ to push forward the long-held conservative agenda of dismantling public education under the rubric of “school choice.” This is the “shock doctrine” in practice.

For the sake of its children, parents, teachers, administrators, and support staff, America needs to reopen its public schools. How that will be accomplished is the question. The American Academy of Pediatrics, has urged administrators to begin from “a goal of having students physically present in school.” How have the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos been supporting such a complex and massive undertaking? Rather than providing national leadership to develop safe school reopening strategies, they are launching yet another culture war.

What is the evidence? In April, DeVos told Glenn Beck that the pandemic was an opportunity to “look very seriously at the fact that K-12 education for too long has been very static and very stuck in one method of delivering and making instruction available.” And, as Katie Ferrari reported, “Education privatizers are already planning to capitalize on the vacuum these budget cuts [to education] will create. Nathaniel Davis, the CEO of K12 Inc., one of the largest for-profit online schools in the country, spoke to investors … about the ‘upside of the pandemic on our business.’ The company has joined the right-wing Heritage Foundation’s National Coronavirus Recovery Commission, which promotes free-market solutions including expanded virtual learning.”

In his patented over-the-top, blustery, and ill-informed manner, Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning July 8: "In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. 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!"

But Trump, as usual, is deceiving the US public about the massive risk in the US vs. the other nations that the mentions. Just see below:

Now the daily US confirmed infections are at 60,000 or above.

Now the daily US confirmed infections are at 60,000 or above.

Trump also tweeted that the guidelines for reopening schools from his C.D.C. were “very tough & expensive,” adding, “I will be meeting with them!!!”

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“A functioning Department of Education would have been getting groups of superintendents and principals and unions and others together from the middle of March,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg.

According to Goldberg, “It would have created a clearinghouse of best practices for maintaining grab-and-go lunch programs and online education. By mid-April it would have convened experts to figure out how to reopen schools safely, and offered grants to schools trying different models.” But none of this had happened when Weingarten spoke with Goldberg.

Enter Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, both with her own agenda and as Trump’s trigger person. In 2019, DeVos, her husband and their four adult children were worth roughly $2 billion. Throughout many years in public life, the DeVos family has funded an assortment of anti-public education privatization projects in support of school choice and religious schools. Absent strong pushback, the coronavirus pandemic gives the DeVos and Trump administration an opportunity to disrupt and reshape the nation’s public school system.

Baker added: “The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) drafted a model immunity bill that they are circulating to state legislatures. Bills granting corporations immunity for getting workers and consumers sick with COVID-19 have already passed in Utah, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana, and Wyoming, and have been proposed in at least 10 other states.”

The coronavirus pandemic with its multiple unanswered questions regarding all areas of life, is now presenting the Trump administration with the opportunity to reshape the nation’s public school system.

Last week, after insinuating that she was considering withholding money from public schools that do not re-open in the fall, she turned around, telling Fox News: “We are not suggesting pulling funding from education, but instead allowing families, take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools refuse to open. Schools can reopen safely and they must reopen.”

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina offers a cautionary example, as New Orleans’ education system became a flashpoint for disaster capitalism. Today, as Jacobin’s Katie Ferrari pointed out, since the gears of privatization were put in motion, “there is not a single public school left in New Orleans. The city’s seven thousand public-school teachers were fired, and the schools reopened as charters. The number of black teachers in the district dropped from 72 percent to 49.7 percent, and teacher turnover has nearly doubled.”

The good news is that DeVos’ strategies are known and there is mounting pushback. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the House panel overseeing education funding, said, “Secretary DeVos has always used words like ‘choice,’ ‘freedom,’ and in this case, ‘allowing families to figure out where their kids can get educated,’ to describe her fixation with implementing systems that siphon away resources from public schools for vouchers and other privatization schemes,” DeLauro said in a statement.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement, “Unless Congress has given the Secretary a slush fund, she doesn’t get to unilaterally decide to change Congressional prerogatives.”

“Please under no circumstances take medical advice from Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos, especially when it comes to the health of your children,” Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of The National Education Association, the United States’ largest teachers' union, said on CNN’s “New Day.”

Bill Berkowitz and Gale Bataille

Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based freelance writer covering conservative movements. He’s a co-founder of the DataCenter, a research library for social and political activists, where he published CultureWatch, a newsletter tracking right-wing movements, and in 2005, he received a Special Journalism Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

Gale Bataille, MSW, is an emeritus County Mental Health/Behavioral Health Director and now works as an independent consultant with the California Institute for Mental Health. She is the CiMH principal consultant for the CiMH Mental Health Leadership Institute offered annually through a partnership with the University of Southern.