While the serial outrages of the Trump administration continue to make headlines, the more mundane activities of his cabinet officials and their underlings often fly under the radar.
Take U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, for instance, whose nomination drew a history-making opposition and set off an avalanche of ridicule in social media and late-night comedy, but who now operates largely out of public view, behind a security screen that is projected to cost the taxpayers nearly $8 million over the next year.
What’s largely been overlooked behind all the lurid headlines and endless insults are all the ways in which officials like DeVos are quietly at work continuing to use our tax money to advance a deeply troubling agenda.
Now that Congress is poised to turn from Red to Blue, DeVos’s activities – such as rolling back regulation of for-profit colleges, stalling the forgiveness of student loans and rewriting rules for the treatment of campus sexual assault – are getting increased scrutiny from House Democrats.
Doing the Koch Brothers’ bidding
In a recent low-profile appearance, DeVos and her high-priced security detail paid a friendly visit to Koch Industries in Wichita, Kansas without telling local officials, the media, or any other public outlet. The purpose of her stopover was to meet with a select group of representatives of Youth Entrepreneurs, a Wichita-based non-profit group founded by Charles and Liz Koch.
Youth Entrepreneurs, according to an investigative report by the Huffington Post, provides high school curriculum designed to inculcate students in the blessings of unfettered capitalism and libertarian ideology. Among the teachings included in the program’s lesson plans and classroom materials are that “the minimum wage hurts workers and slows economic growth. Low taxes and less regulation allow people to prosper. Public assistance harms the poor. Government, in short, is the enemy of liberty.
“Charles Koch had a hands-on role in the design of the high school curriculum,” the reporter reveals, based on leaked emails from a Google group left open to the public. “The goal … was to turn young people into ‘liberty-advancing agents’ before they went to college, where they might learn ‘harmful’ liberal ideas.”
While the purpose of DeVos’s trip to Youth Entrepreneurs remains unclear, it fits a pattern of DeVos using her visits to select education programs in order to feed her propaganda campaign for market-based education reform and privatizing public schools.
Selling the education ‘reform” lie
Another recent trip brought the DeVos caravan to New Orleans to drop in on two charter schools – nearly all taxpayer-supported schools in New Orleans are charter schools – and praise the district for being “a great example of what can be if people embrace change.”
The schools were carefully selected to build her narrative of market-based reform, the ideology that remade New Orleans schools after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
But as Louisiana-based public-school teacher Mercedes Schneider explains on her personal blog, the charter schools DeVos chose to visit are hardly representative of the conditions of New Orleans public schools under the reform regime.
First, both schools are among the few A-rated schools, based on state rankings, in a sea of D- and F-rated schools. Further, the two schools have much higher percentages of white students than is typical in a district that is overwhelmingly populated by black and brown students.
So what DeVos really illustrates by her visits to these New Orleans schools isn’t how reform produces what works but how reform creates “incredible racial inequity” Schneider correctly concludes.
Stoking the charter school industry
It’s important to note how the rhetoric DeVos employs in her propaganda campaign for market-based education reform gets reflected in the policy decisions made by her department.
As Politico reports, USDoE recently awarded $399 million in federal grants to expand and support charter schools across the country.
The grants, made through the Charter Schools Program, which has enjoyed a $40 million boost under the Trump administration, went to individual charter school operators and various state education agencies and nonprofit groups that either help secure funding for charters, push for their expansions, or advocate for the charter cause.
Even a cursory scan of some of the recipients warrants deeper scrutiny.
For instance, among three Alabama charter schools that received $1 million each in grant money, two have already been the subjects of multiple lawsuits.
Birmingham charter Legacy Prep – which recently changed its name, postponed its opening date, and has yet to find a building – just settled a messy court case with its founder – a Baptist church pastor – over who had authority over the school’s operations and whether the school’s governing board was properly constituted.
The court settlement follows closely after the Alabama Public Charter School Commission won its effort to overturn the Birmingham district school board’s original denial of the charter’s application. The district board had ruled last year that the school’s application did not meet the requirements of the district’s request for charter proposals.
So now, thanks to DeVos and her department, federal funds are going to a charter school under suspect leadership, with no building, that the district doesn’t want.
Similarly, another Alabama charter with a million dollar grant, University Charter School in Livingston, had to hurdle a lawsuit to open its doors.
In May, the county board that oversees the district filed suit to prohibit the charter’s authorizer from operating the school in a former high school that the district sold to the authorizer with the specific condition not to open a charter school in the building.
Here again, federal dollars are funding a charter startup in a local community that does not want it. So much for DeVos’s promises to curb the “overreach” of the federal government in education.
Supporting right-wing cronies
Another charter school grant winner on the list that deserves a closer look is the American Heritage Academy in Idaho.
The school’s founder, Frank Vandersloot, is a conservative billionaire, with a net worth of $1.9 billion, who was a finance co-chair of Mitt Romney’s 2012 failed presidential campaign and has given money to Florida Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, former Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, the Republican National Committee, and state Republican parties across the U.S., according to a report in Forbes.
Vandersloot made national headlines in 2015 when he sued Mother Jones magazine for defamation after the news outlet published an article detailing his efforts to oppose gay rights.
Vandersloot has hosted a closed door meeting with President Trump at the headquarters of his company, Melaleuca. The company – which sells diet, personal care, home cleaning, and cosmetic products – has been compared to Amway, the mega-company DeVos is heiress to, in that it employs a multi-level marketing strategy.
Vandersloot and DeVos are, in fact, connected through their participation in a multi-level marketing trade group that has been active in promoting legislation that attempts to limit the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to investigate and prosecute multi-level marketing scam operations.
All the things we don’t know
None of this is to consider whether Vandersloot’s charter school, or any of the other charter school grantees, may or may not be worthy institutions, but shouldn’t taxpayers know more about why the school deserves our money?
Should we know, for instance, why grant money will go to a North Carolina charter, the Charlotte Lab School, that touts racial diversity in its mission, yet has a student population that is two-thirds white in a district where only 30 percent of the students are white?
Should we know more about why a federal grant is going to a Kansas City charter school, Scuola Vita Nuova Charter School, that is located at an Italian Cultural Center and had to pay $30,000 to former principal who filed lawsuit claiming the school’s founder made her fire her same-sex partner who also worked at the school?
Because of DeVos’s general lack of transparency, what we’re left with, instead of answers, are more questions and a well-founded suspicion that her purpose in office is to purloin as much public money as she can into the hands of private interests while justifying it as a much-needed reform.
Come January, when there’s a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, there will be inquiries to reveal the inner machinations of DeVos’s department. But in the meantime, she and her associates toil away behind a shroud of scary headlines, and that’s just the way they want it.