The U.S. Department of Education does not, as the right-wingers tell you, dictate policy and curriculum to each one of the thousands of public school boards in this country. The Secretary of Education does not, by law, have the power to tell a school board what it can or cannot do in the classroom any more than the Secretary of Transportation can dictate speed limits on city streets or country roads. They don’t have those kinds of powers. Their power, as with all federal departments, lies in their ability to allocate funds and decide who gets them and for what purpose. That power is more potent than being able to dictate whether or not to teach “intelligent design” in a biology class. In short, it’s money.
That is what is most disturbing to me about appointing someone like Betsy DeVos, a person with demonstrably no idea of how public education works but a very long history of how money works, as the Secretary of Education. She has spent her entire adult life fighting against a system of state and local entities that she has no knowledge of other than what she reads in the papers. She seems to have arrived at her views of public education based on the conservative knee-jerk reflex that anything funded by a government is inherently bad and wasteful and the truest way to be both American and productive is to embrace the profit motive.
That works in some cases; a bank is wiser to hire its own armed guards to keep an eye on the place rather than to solely rely on the local police who have other obligations as well as protecting a bank vault, and chances are the bank can afford it. Private education is good — I’m a product of it from Grade 3 through my undergrad degree — but my parents could afford it for me and my siblings, and it did not supplant the local public schools in my hometown. Nor could it.
Betsy DeVos cannot march into a local school district and tell them what to teach. She cannot even take away the basic entitlement programs that fund education for the poor and disabled; those programs are written into law and can only be repealed by Congress. But what she can do is decide whether or not to fund programs that reach beyond the local districts’ abilities to provide for more than just a basic education such as magnet school programs and outreach to parents to become better first teachers. Her breathtaking lack of fundamental knowledge of how students are evaluated puts at risk programs that reach students who struggle in the classroom thanks to factors that have never been encountered by someone who has never walked into a public school. And for every public school system that is struggling — and there are many — there are public schools in every part of the country — rural, urban, suburban — that are shining examples of just how well public education works, and a good deal of it is thanks to programs funded by the federal government.
There are some fundamental elements of our democracy and capitalist system that should be left in the hands of public trust. Defense, infrastructure, law enforcement, and education come to mind, and not coincidentally, each one of those elements makes life not just better but possible. To defund public education and turn it over to venture capitalists is as ridiculous an idea as disbanding the armed forces and turning our national defense over to Blackwater.