The nomination of billionaire voucher enthusiast Betsy DeVos for secretary of Education comes after nearly two decades of a largely bipartisan consensus around “education reform.” That consensus, repeated for years in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, posits, first and foremost, that public schools are failing.
They are, the narrative goes, especially failing the nation’s most vulnerable students. That failure is presented, by education reformers and corporate media pundits alike, not as a result of inequality or poverty or resource scarcity, but of public education itself. The solution, pioneered by pro-privatization reformers and repeated by newspapers since the George W. Bush years, sounds both innocuous and innovative: school choice.
As a result of the uncritical consensus around school choice, major papers like the Times and the Post are unable to report on an extremist figure like DeVos—whose pro-voucher and pro-charter advocacy fits comfortably within the school-choice ethos—without ceding even more ground to the corporate education reform movement. “School choice” is not as value-neutral as it sounds: It is a buzzword not only for the expansion of charter schools and vouchers, but for the divestment of public funds away from public education and into the private sector.
The spectrum of opinions on DeVos presented in corporate media range from skepticism to enthusiasm, but school choice itself is unquestioned. The basic premise of education reform—that privatization is the solution—is taken as a given when papers repeatedly use the language of corporate reform. This leaves them questioning only the extent of that privatization, by way of charters or vouchers or both.
Even where coverage of DeVos has been critical—and much of it has, especially since her confirmation hearing—major papers parrot the language of corporate ed reformers. From the New York Times (1/12/17):
But school choice means different things to different people. Many educators and groups that support charter schools—which are public—do not support vouchers, which steer public money away from public schools by giving families money to spend on private school tuition.
That charter schools are “public” is a talking point put forward by the charter sector. Oversight of charter school performance varies widely state by state. They are run by non-profit organizations and sometimes for-profit companies. Their employees do not have the same rights as public-sector employees. They do not serve proportionate numbers of students with disabilities. They suspend black students at four times the rate of white students, and suspend students with disabilities at rates 2–3 times higher than their non-disabled peers, as the Times itself reported last year (3/16/16).
For the Times to repeat the claim that charter schools are public is an ideological choice, one that erases what makes public schools “public”—particularly, their requirement to serve all students. So-called “public charter schools” may be free, but they aren’t public institutions in terms of funding, employment, regulation or the populations they serve.
Ed reformers and their mouthpieces in corporate media present school choice as the great equalizer. “The only people who do not enjoy this right are those who are too poor to move out of neighborhoods where public schools are failing,” wrote Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt (1/1/17). He suggested that the federal government should “encourage choice for the children who today have none,” and that DeVos could do this by offering “one or two cities the chance to become laboratories of choice.” He added, without specifics, “Any city where schools are struggling would be eligible to volunteer. (That is a big pool.)” He doesn’t name a single city as an example of the “big pool” where “schools are struggling.”
The system would then stop funding schools and begin funding families. Every child would be given an annual scholarship. Poor children, who often enter school needing extra attention, would get bigger scholarships. Children with disabilities would get more, too.
Every school would then have to compete for students. Principals would be allowed to hire the teachers they wanted. In exchange, every school would have to measure its children’s progress with identical tests, so that parents could compare.
Hiatt cited Washington, DC, itself as a successful model for his vision, praising former chancellor Michelle Rhee as having done the “slow, tough work of improving the traditional public schools, the charters have gotten better, too.” Hiatt seems to have forgotten Rhee’s deeply unpopular closure of 23 public schools in 2008—at a cost of $40 million—and the standardized-test cheating scandal that defined her tenure. He sees “identical tests” as a reliable and just way to measure student achievement, despite the powerful resistance to testing that parents, students and teachers have mounted in recent years.
In another Post column (1/19/17), Connor P. Williams takes a more liberal but still pro-reform stance, arguing that “school choice programs can be much brighter, better and bolder than DeVos’s limited vision.” He also cites DC, along with Newark, Boston and New York City—all sites of growing resistance to charters—as models that “have used school choice policies to give low and middle-income families more educational options.”
According to Williams, those cities “incorporate significant public oversight to ensure that these options are high-quality. That helps their school choice programs support integration and equity alike.” In fact, charter schools in Newark are far more segregated than public schools. New York City schools remain the most segregated in the country, with charters as a contributing factor.
Corporate media and ed reformers alike paint public education as as a bastion of power, and charters and vouchers as the underdogs. An op-ed at USA Today (1/18/17) endorses DeVos for her promise to “challenge the status quo interests in American education,” with school choice as her primary tool. “She intends to prioritize the needs of parents, providing them unfettered school choice options — including vouchers, educational savings accounts, homeschooling, etc.” DeVos, the authors write:
will disrupt business-as-usual—with an intensified focus on the rights of parents to choose the right school for their children, no longer being subservient to their neighborhood zip code-mandated school or some anonymous education bureaucrat assigning kids to a school based on arbitrary laws irrespective if that school is failing.
The language of “school choice” turns students into customers and schools into the marketplace. It turns public education into an oppressive, vaguely Soviet bureaucracy. In this framing, charters and vouchers represent freedom from oppression.
The papers that print these arguments don’t provide a definition of what they mean by “failing” schools—they don’t need to. Years of amplifying the pro-reform movements rhetoric has made “public schools” synonymous with “failing schools” when poor students of color are the subject. The words “failing schools” appeared in the New York Times 611 times between 2002 and 2014.
The rhetorical work of delegitimizing public education has already been done. While DeVos may be far to the right of the bipartisan vision of corporate education reform, the path towards privatization has already been paved.