Barack Obama and corporate Democrats opened the door to the serious threats to public education represented by Betsy Devos, says Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. President-Elect Donald Trump has revealed his pick for Education Secretary – billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos. The right-wing charter school advocate was chosen after Jerry Falwell said he’d turn down the post. Also in the running was disgraced former head of DC schools Michelle Rhee. In September, Trump proposed the government spend $20 billion to expand school choice through vouchers and increase charter schools. Here’s that clip. DONALD TRUMP: School choice is at the center of the civil rights agenda. And my goal is to provide every single inner-city child in America that is trapped in a failing government school, the freedom to attend the school of their choice. Competition — the schools will get better and better and better. DONALD TRUMP: And that means a private school, a religious school, a charter school or a magnet school can homeschool their children. JAISAL NOOR: That’s Donald Trump in September talking about his plan to spend $20 billion to expand school vouchers and school choice. Well, now joining us to discuss this from Plainfield, New Jersey, is Glen Ford. Glen is the Co-founder and Executive Editor of the Black & Gender Report. Thanks so much for joining us, Glen. GLEN FORD: Thanks for having me. JAISAL NOOR: So, Glen, we just heard Donald Trump outline his vision for school vouchers, giving the parents the choice to decide where they to send their kids, whether it be a private school, a parochial school, a charter school, a magnet school and he has picked Betsy DeVos to implement those policies, someone who’s had her hands in education policy for decades. And we’ll get to that. But talk about the history of the private school movement and as well as the issue of school choice and vouchers. Talk about where that comes from and its history. GLEN FORD: Yeah, well, DeVos is part of what we might call the “old school” of the privatization folks. Whereas the “new school” of privatization is represented by Barack Obama. And now we see those two schools kind of coming together under President Trump’s Administration, at least it seems that way. DeVos was part of that old school, the fat cat contributors to the private school, voucher movement. But the private school voucher movement was anathema in most black political circles because it was so closely identified, in fact it grew out of the segregation academy movement, that is those private schools that were set up all over the South in order to avoid public school desegregation. And not just in the South but also in western parts of Michigan, which is where DeVos is from and that’s where her branch of the school voucher movement came from. JAISAL NOOR: And you’re talking about in response to Brown vs Board of Education. GLEN FORD: Brown vs Board of Education. In the South whole counties shut down their school systems and then immediately opened up private schools for the white kids to go to and then launched a movement to fund those private schools with public school dollars. In fact, they embezzled, syphoned off plenty of public funds in order to do that in various localities for awhile. They also hooked up with elements of the Catholic Church in order to resuscitate, revive the Catholic Church’s private school systems. But it didn’t catch on in black America ’cause black folks knew where that came from. In fact, it was so unpopular that you could only find one member of the Congressional Black Caucus before the turn of the 21st century who supported private school vouchers. One of the exceptions in terms of black politicians who supported school vouchers was Cory Booker, who was a school voucher advocate in Newark, New Jersey. He, now, of course, is a US Senator. And he was one of the founding members of this Black Alliance for Educational Options that was set up by DeVos and the Walton family, another bunch of fat cat contributors to privatization of schools by all means and a whole bunch of right-wing corporate personalities — they funded this Black Alliance for Educational Options in order to make inroads in the black community for private school vouchers. And Cory Booker was part of that. Corporations poured millions of dollars into it and in 2000 George Bush was elected president and he put this Black Alliance on the Federal payroll and more millions of dollars came into their pockets. But black people were still resisting private school vouchers. And, therefore, it wasn’t a very effective strategy because the goal was always on making some kind of inroads in the inner city schools. Remember, suburban schools are well-funded and the parents of students there don’t see any need for any kind of programs like that. So, the focus was always on black America. And the focus became not on school vouchers, with all the resistance that resulted, but on charters. And the political clout shifted from the Republicans to fat cat Democrats and especially folks on Wall Street, but also Bill Gates. And lots of people from Silicon Valley, they liked the idea of charter schools because that was a way to reach a whole bunch of folks without such political resistance and change the curriculum and, in fact, the very purpose of schooling in ways that were better suited, they thought, to the needs of their corporations. And one of the new group of black corporate Democrats that were in favor of charter schools was Barack Obama. And when he came in, he became the champion of all time of privatization through charters through his Race to the Top program. JAISAL NOOR: And I think it’s important for people to be reminded that Race to the Top did way more to expand charter schools than No Child Left Behind ever could do. And that was one of the few things where Obama could get the Republicans on his side and many Democrats, to some extent, opposed that initiative. GLEN FORD: It was the grand bargain that he was seeking in the educational arena. And it coerced states to raise the ceilings that many of them had placed on the number of charter schools that they would allow on their territory or else they would lose these … billions of federal funding from Race to the Top. So, he was magic for the charter school movement. And so, what we’re seeing here is an amalgam emerging under the Trump Administration of these fantastic successes in terms of penetration — not necessarily in terms of education — but successes in terms of penetration of public education by charters and now a revival of the old school of private school vouchers as federal policy under DeVos. You can thank both DeVos and Barack Obama for the privatization of education in this country. JAISAL NOOR: And I think it’s interesting because I want to bring up the example of Detroit, which has a charter school program which is a complete disaster. There’s been a huge amount of community outcry over the condition of the schools. And it was reported by the Detroit Metro Times this past summer that DeVos and her family gave thousands to law makers to block increased accountability of that charter school system. Her family’s a major long-time funder of the Republican party. And in 1997, she admitted her family is the single largest contributor of soft money to the Republican party. Her brother is Erik Prince, the founder of the private mercenary company Blackwater, which is a whole ‘nother topic we can get into. But I wanted to briefly go back to the issue of Newark, New Jersey, where Cory Booker was Mayor. You talked about the philanthropic world giving money, especially Silicon Valley, and that’s where Mark Zuckerberg invested $100 million. He talked about corporate black Democrats. He announced that with Oprah Winfrey and Chris Christie was there, on the Oprah Winfrey Show. And that money, the question of where that $100 million went, became a huge issue in Newark and it became part of the election. When Booker went to the Senate, the election between Ras Baraka– GLEN FORD: A Booker clone(?). JAISAL NOOR: …Yes. And Shavar Jeffries, who is a big charter school opponent, and we saw it there in Newark where the people sided with Baraka and voted him in against this huge influx of money from Jeffries and his backers. And, as we talked before the interview, charter schools were set back in elections and in ballot initiatives around the country in this election. GLEN FORD: Yes. In Massachusetts, it was question two, and two-thirds of the voters rejected charter schools. And what was important here is that they didn’t just reject bad charter schools, they rejected charter schools as such. Because very few of the charter schools in Massachusetts are ranked among the worst. But the schools in Michigan with people like DeVos protecting them, all ranked among the worst. They are as close to private schools as she can get them while still giving public funding. In other words, she is still shooting for her ideal of no state involvement in education. That’s her philosophical objective. JAISAL NOOR: And so, what that means is no accountability. And we hear of these scandals with charter schools kicking out students, being completely fake, like, families would show up for days at a time or weeks at a time and there would be a school on paper, but none there. But there’s the bigger issue, I think, because there is an appeal for charter schools, and especially in urban America, because people look at the public school system and they say, “I don’t want to send my kid to that neighborhood school.” So, let’s talk about some solutions about what can be done about the public education system in this country. Bernie Sanders had an interesting proposal — de-link public school funding from property taxes because that’s the root of this inequity in many ways. Because, for example in Chicago, schools outside of the city boundary in the suburbs, the wealthy suburbs, will get like twice the amount of funding in some cases. GLEN FORD: Well, of course the de-linking with property taxes has to be there because there are obviously limit to what poorer communities can do in terms of subsidizing their public schools. But everything has to begin with community control of schools; and whatever budgets are available that the people decide have a role in how those monies are spent, and not these corporate architects of education that are in the cat-bird seat of both under private school vouchers and under the kind of charter school formulas that the Obama Administration’s been pushing. JAISAL NOOR: And it’s worth mentioning that in some cities, like Chicago, they do have local school councils where parents are directly involved. And those type of councils get removed when schools get privatized or made into charters. So, there are models that exist around the country where parents are directly involved either on a local level or on a citywide level. But we’ll definitely have to keep continuing this conversation. Thanks so much for joining us again, Glen Ford. GLEN FORD: Thank you. JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.