Betsy DeVos

[This is a slightly modified Facebook post from yesterday]

Alright, so Betsy DeVos is going to be Secretary of Education. And I basically think that’s a disaster. But some part of me genuinely wants to know: what is it her supporters think is going to happen? Or, more importantly, what is it they want to happen? Because here’s what it seems like:

There’s this idea of “school choice.” Parents have children, and they want them to be educated. To that end, they will investigate the available school options, and then choose the one that best fits their goals for their children. Schools, both public and private, will compete for students, who will come with government vouchers attached to them that will help fund the schools.

In theory that all sounds fine. It makes me think of Tyler Cowen, an economist and blogger at George Mason University who always seems to write from a world where everyone can get a job making as much money as they want, whenever they want. Whatever happens is your choice. Your responsibility.

I think the reality of what will happen looks entirely different, even from the view of DeVos supporters. Because “school choice” is only part of what they want. What they also want is vindication of decades of fear and loathing with respect to government policy on public education. For example, if Chicago Public Schools fail (and thousands of students don’t get an education), it will mean that big government policies have failed! Those government bureaucrats should have known better than to try and fit everyone into a one-size-fits-all system! If public schools collapse, it will be because the communities who supported them chose wrong! And now they’ll have to pay the price!

Also crucial to this view is the idea of the “happy poor.” If you’re unhappy it’s your own fault. It’s not because you have to choose between paying your bills and eating. Or because you can’t afford to send your kids to a decent school. No no no. Happiness is a personal responsibility. But it’s equal opportunity!

It’s essentially a revenge theory. Social conservatives have resented public education for a long, long time. The Supreme Court ruled, in a series of cases going back to 1947 (Everson v Board of Education, where Justice Hugo Black famously quoted Jefferson’s writing “wall of separation between church and state”) and stretching through the early 1960s (in particular Abington School District v Schempp) that religion had no place in education, to the lasting ire of the religious right. And of course, the Brown v Board of Education decision that ended public school segregation.

Conservatives won’t be happy until liberals – and everyone they’ve tried to help – suffer. Suffer long and hard, so they know not to meddle in liberty of their fellow citizens.

Granted, I know that’s a pretty harsh assessment of the situation. I often sense that my tone, both here and in other places, is excessively abrasive. On the other hand, I often think to myself that so many people want there to be a moderation of the debate, and the conservative side of political debate is able to leverage that hope over and over again. Throughout the first Obama administration there were calls for civility and compromise, and Democrats had to constantly make overtures to Republicans, trying to find common ground and “bi-partisan solutions” and the Republicans, almost without exception, acted in bad faith throughout that period. I use harsh language because the bad faith of so many Americans enrages me. When we puff out our chest at the pomp and circumstance of the flag and the anthem and then turn away from injustice that besets us daily, it makes me mad.

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