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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Betsy DeVos is No Horace Mann: Column

From USA Today

By Peter Renn
January 10, 2017

He inspired unprecedented support for the public school system. That's not what DeVos has in mind.

The nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education secretary is an ominous sign for our public school system. Her advocacy for the expansion of charter schools and deep involvement in the privatization movement foreshadow a radical agenda that runs counter to the original spirit of the role of the public school.

Steadily, drip by drip, the American public has absorbed the narrative of widespread failing schools in need of a comprehensive makeover. While reforms were necessary, this movement is now a big business industry.


The neoliberal approach of government and business partnering together to create educational policy threatens to corrupt the schooling process and, quite frankly, represents an abdication of the public’s responsibility and civic duty to our children.

The plethora of reform topics (including high-stakes testing, value-added assessment, vouchers and more) and the public’s lack of understanding of the growing impact of neoliberal policies in our schools create a noxious brew of confusion. This relative ignorance enables reformers to continue implementing their agendas with an American public unaware of the long-term consequences.

As New York University professor Lisa Duggan warned us nearly 15 years ago, the steady stream of information on the need for reform is masking the equally steady transfer of wealth and decision-making from publicly accountable governing bodies to private corporations.


One method of reclaiming the reform narrative is to reflect on the purpose of our public schools. Yes, the education of our children is a given. What needs revisiting is the public’s ownership of the process by investing, through taxes, in the next generation of citizens. This is a foundational argument necessary to educate and inspire civic responsibility.

We must explain that these are “our” schools, the people’s, and not an emerging market for corporations and the further entrenchment of what educators Anthony Picciano and Joel Spring refer to as the “education-industrial complex within our society.”

Unfortunately, the teaching profession has been pushed aside and continues to struggle to have a voice due to a lack of high profile advocates sounding the alarm bells and explaining the meaning of these reforms to the general public. Individual classroom teachers struggle with these reforms, but often refrain from publicly airing their dissent due to decades of marginalization in the formation of educational policy.

This week’s speech by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was a good first step to highlight the goals of privatization advocates. I fear, however, that the battered public reputation of teachers’ unions will cause most Americans to ignore her exhortations as self-serving and politically motivated.


This dearth of leadership from the teaching profession has allowed others to rush in and push their agendas. Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools and a media favorite, uses inflammatory rhetoric to portray the public school system as an out-of-control monster, while former television journalist Campbell Brown excoriates the teaching profession.

The publishing giant Pearson, not satisfied with the vast amounts of revenue gained through the endless testing our children endure, now has an influential role in the final evaluation of student teachers through the use of its edTPA assessment process. On the positive side, former assistant Education secretary Diane Ravitch is making the case for public schools on her blog. Unfortunately, her audience and impact on the discussion are limited.

American education needs a champion for our schools — someone who understands the needs of students and what teaching entails, and can push back on corporate influence and global education reform movement policies, appropriately referred to as “GERM” in education circles.

In short, our nation needs another Horace Mann, the architect of the Common School movement, with a passionate calling and a clear voice. Mann’s powerful message resulted in unprecedented support of the public school system, and that needs to be rekindled once again. Mann argued that educating future citizens was a moral duty.

The man or woman who steps into this current leadership void needs to remind us of this obligation, remove the corrupting influences of money and power from our schools, and possess the political capital to enact change. Such a commitment honors the dedicated teachers in our schools as well as the children whom they serve.

Peter Renn, an educator for 25 years, is director of the Center for Professional Education at Seattle Pacific University.

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