Listening to Betsy DeVos: “Ooooh That Smell”

Can’t you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you

(“That Smell,” Lynyrn Skynyrd)

Something reeks at Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education. It is probably something many Michiganders have noticed for some time, and now it spreading across the United States.

Seriously, before I get to the DeVos smell, I want to clarify one term that has been thrown around during the hearings, and, well, for many years by the so-called education reform movement: public education.

Let’s define public education for what it is when DeVos and her reform-heads use it. Public education is a euphemism for inner-city, poor, minority, non-mainstream schools. When people, me included, accuse DeVos of wanting to destroy public education what we really mean—or should mean—is that she wants to destroy the public schools that serve non-mainstream, poor, and minority children because these are the only schools she and others reform-heads have set their sights on. They has no interest in destroying those public school in wealthy neighborhoods that serve children from upper-middle class and wealthy homes. Similarly, when she says and acts to privatize and profit-ize public education, she, in effect, wants to take the already inequitable funding of poor and non-mainstream schools and funnel it to her wealthy friends, who without any oversight or accountability, can do what they please (e.g., ignore federal law as she suggested in her hearing) and reap profit at every turn.

To make the true meaning of the term even clearer, DeVos suggests that her interests are poor children and their families. Yet, she has no knowledge or understanding of poor children’s public schools, much less their lives, and she appears not to be interested in understanding the issues public schools in urban and, for full disclosure, rural communities face, which go well beyond what takes place in these schools and is directly related to how the richest nation in the world treats its poorest citizens and communities. She has not engaged those people with whom she claims to have interest about what they want, has not engaged educators and educational researchers about education and the role of public education in communities, and has little to no understanding of how schools function, much less of the work of educators do every day.

The fact that she never attended public schools or sent her children to public schools is disheartening knowing the power she will soon have over these schools. Yet, much worse is the fact that not having experienced public education, she stepped into the middle of educational debate in Michigan without trying to understand those very schools and educators she disparages. She has never volunteered, spent time with teachers and students, served on a school board, or even recognized the perspective of those who value and are committed to public education.

So when Betsy DeVos says that she serves the interests of children and parents, we should ask ourselves, first, how many of these children and parents does she know? What has she done to support their communities? And why isn’t she demanding that they have the same access to excellent public education that children of middle class and wealthy families have? We know that those families’ public schools are some of the best in the world. Whereas, there is no evidence, here or anywhere else in the world, that charter schools and vouchers will provide the type of education of well funded and community-controlled public schools provide.

Back to that smell, which we are going to have to learn to live with for the next four years. Listening to Betsy DeVos, during her confirmation hearing and at other times, reminds me of what I have crassly come to refer to as the sense of entitlement syndrome: the belief that whatever shit comes out of your mouth must smell good. I knew all along that her intentions were not good. Listening to her speak the past two days confirms, too, that her knowledge of the responsibilities of Secretary of Education is sparse. Clearly the wretched smell in the confirmation room is what DeVos is saying.

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