In this post-truth age that’s done away with facts, George Orwell’s1984has soared to the top of the charts. But in the world of public education, it’s been1984for quite some time. And we didn’t even need the clumsy apparatus of a totalitarian dictatorship to bring it about. All we needed was some slick PR and smiley corporate faces and a media ready to spit back the buzzwords they’d been fed –failing public schools, no excuses, accountability, choice, access for every child, closing the achievement gap –repeating them so often that they passed for truth.
In Orwell’s dystopia, WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The Ministry of Truth spawns lies and propaganda, the Ministry of Love supervises torture and brainwashing, and the Ministry of Peace promulgates war and atrocity. Turn the words on their heads, and you get a glimmer of the truth. And the Ministry of Education? There is no Ministry of Education. So now we have a Secretary of Education who’s a dedicated enemy of public education. Betsy DeVos has, for the past decade, has used her fortune to privatize education in her home state, Michigan, where 80% of charters are for profit and beyond accountability, and student performance has plummeted.
But DeVos should come as no surprise: she is the culmination of the way things have long been headed. No Child Left Behind, signed into law in January 2002, brought to us byGeorge W. Bush and the moneyed interests he represented, arrived in clouds of rhetoric about “access” and “civil rights.” It announced itself as “an act to close the achievement gap with accountability, choice, flexibility, so that no child is left behind.” But this was never about reform or access or leveling the playing field: it was about opening up public education as a market, siphoning off tax dollars to charters and for-profit vendors, shifting public funds from a system that had public oversight and control to private interests. Education was a rich, untapped market with billions of federal dollars there for the taking. Schools, panicked at having their survival based on standardized test scores, invested heavily in testing technology. Multinational testing corporations, publishing companies, ed-tech ventures rushed in with their wares: software for administering tests, test preps, pre-tests, post-tests, tests scoring, lesson plans, teaching modules, assessment devices; entire new industries sprang into being.
Diane Ravitch, assistant Secretary of Education under GWB, was initially a proponent of NCLB, but recoiled in horror when she saw what it was doing, routing public funds into private profits, and realized this had been its purpose all along. She has told this story inThe Death and Life of the Great American School SystemandReign of Error; so have Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux, and dozens of teacher bloggers exposed corporate reform. But their voices are not heard in mainstream media; most people I know are incredulous when I talk this way (even though most people I know are educators), so the story could do with some recap and update, now that DeVos’ appointment has drawn some attention. This sellout has been going on for a long while. And it has been bipartisan.
A handful of billionaires and their foundations bankrolled and orchestrated a multibillion-dollar PR campaign to convince people that public education is broken and private interests can do it better. The Big Three of educational philanthropy, as Joanne Barkan calls them, in a brilliant expose inDissent– the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) – poured billions into promoting charters, funding think tanks that produce a steady stream of papers purporting to be research that are actually propaganda, funding advocacy groups that purport to be grassroots but are actually corporate-sponsored, subsidizing writers and bloggers who push privatization. They have paid for “their own media outlets, and heavily subsidize others,” as Barkan shows, funding films likeWaiting for SupermanandWon’t Back Down,suckering in so powerful a proponent as Oprah.