From the interests of equity and education, there is little doubt that the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is bad news for public education and great news for private interests. But she is not a recent arrival for venture capitalism in education. We must understand the thorny lineage in which she emerges, what her nomination signals in the short and long term, and how long the road has been in her nomination. DeVos is without a doubt a glaringly inappropriate and dangerous office holder for the nation’s highest educational leader. But the harmful racist capitalist ideologies that have led to DeVos’ nomination are likely to flourish unless directly countered.
There have been a number of sharp investigative articles and essays critiquing DeVos’ glaring inadequacies for this appointment, including the multi-pronged damage she has done in the state of Michigan by creating systems of low accountability, confusing “choices” across schools, and siphoning public monies into private coffers. As has been shown time and time again, the manifestation of ‘choice’ in education benefits those who have the most time and resources to create and leverage choices. Free market taglines of choice may sound a knell of honoring parents’ wisdom, but in fact what they honor is gaming public structures for private property interests. As with all aspects of being in a racist capitalist society, choice is freer for some.
nomination confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has the potential to be the apex of a decades-long neoliberal, bi-partisan expansion of private logics into the public domain of education. But this potential will be easily missed as a one-off battle instead of indicative of a fairly broad-based support of racist capitalist ideologies. In many ways, DeVos’ nomination is a mere stanza in the centuries-long, ongoing structure of settler colonialism that has instituted cognitive imperialism (Battiste, 2013) of individualism and competition through formal education. Education, as a profession, has largely long since absconded its stewardship of learning for the pursuit of competitive test score production. This is not to say that powerful learning and teaching connections do not happen on a daily basis in schools. Of course, they do, but this requires attentiveness to humanity that intertwined pressures for wrong-headed predictions of achievement, measuring, and punishing work to grind down. Culturally, the ethos of formal education in the United States has long been one of measuring to stratify and alternately reward and punish. The punishment for not succeeding was the withholding of funds and the reward for performing was more resources. Predictably, those districts and neighborhoods that were already well-resourced, that is to say white middle and upper class, have been handsomely protected and rewarded throughout history continuing in this era of high stakes assessment and privatization.
Betsy DeVos is another figurehead in the shelf-life decay of learning under the auspices of individualistic, colonial, and neoliberal ideologies. With former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Department of Education instituted even more comprehensive and punishing high stakes assessment, which was started under the administrations of George W. Bush. Before that, the administration of Bill Clinton introduced federal policies to casualize education professional expertise under America Reads (Edmondson 2000). One of the weakest limbs that education activists can stand on is to think that DeVos is more objectionable because she is a Republican. Privatizing education and confusing test score production for learning has been, sadly, a bipartisan venture and in that, a fundamentally American racist capitalist one. And while Republicans might be drawn to DeVos because they believe she will reduce the federal imprint on states and local districts, it is naïve to think the imprint of racist capitalism will be any less prevalent through tactics that pour public monies into market-based capitalist ventures.
Racist capitalism is never simple. It is always present, but never simple. It’s variations and permutations require vigilance to their details. More than any previous education czar, Betsy DeVos presents the most inexperienced head of education. But why does this matter? The heads of the most heralded schools of education and charter school corporations come from business, law, and economics backgrounds. The field of education is dominated demographically, in terms of administrators and researchers, by the white middle and upper classes who hold little in common with the poor families of color who rely on public education.
In this way, DeVos is not unique. She, like other anointed education entrepreneurs, more entrepreneur than educator. She, and education leaders without education experience, signal both a fundamental distrust and disrespect of educators as well as a worshipping of capital. DeVos and ed reformers of this era are entrusted because they have money, which is not coincidental to their racialized images. They are racially majoritized not because they have personally accrued money, merely that they possess it and are therefore positioned better in a racist capitalist society that stratifies well-being through the technology of race.
Betsy DeVos has capital. She was born into economic capital and married into more of it. This economic capital has allowed her to parlay economic well-being into social and political capital. As Bourdieu made clear, social and cultural capital are valuable to the extent that they can be converted to economic capital. DeVos’ vision for education speaks strongly of her acumen of intertwining economic, social, and cultural capital in a marketplace. Ironically, some of Bourdieu’s ideas are taught in education implicitly but skewed through the pursuit of accruing capital.
Why is it dangerous for education to align itself with the pursuit of capital? Most fundamentally, capital is a concept and material reality that correlates life with resources, limited resources. Capital begins and ends with a zero-sum game in which players are implicitly pitted against each other to gain more capital. Those with less capital lose. In fact, those with less capital are summarily lesser (Rosa, 2016). As a cultural practice, understanding ourselves relative to capital means that we do collateral, perhaps irrevocable, damage to humanity, being and collectivity as we winnow our existence through individualism and competition. Education in the schema of capital all but obviates robust concepts of learning as transformation, as fugitive practice, as marronage. From the vantage of capital, the only reason one has to learn anything is for the gain one might obtain through performed mastery.
Capitalist, and more fundamentally colonial, logics of stratified well-being echo through K-12 and higher education. Classroom teachers are assessed by educational administrators who have become managers of criteria. These managers conduct classroom observations using lists of decontextualized ‘best practices.’ In schools of education, professors are retooling their work to provide graduate degrees in education entrepreneurship. When we decontextualize the highly interpersonal praxis of pedagogy and institute lists of decontextualized best practices, we do damage to the very idea of learning. When we mashup such collections of best practices for education entrepreneurs, we sideline any historical and social understanding of education in society. In fronting entrepreneurship, we eliminate curriculum on the history of learning as a fought-for right by Black, Latino and Asian populations in this country. We miss that union rights have allowed teaching to be one of the few professional places where women were guaranteed equal pay to men, for a short while. We don’t learn that the wholesale adoption of privatized charter school initiatives in cities like Detroit and New Orleans, Detroit have allowed for the largest scale destabilization of the Black middle class since the Civil Rights Movement and the creation of excess young Black and brown bodies in and out of schools.
Historical acumen tends to caution social entrepreneurship; hubris facilitates it. Social entrepreneurship requires dispossessed populations for its experimentation.
Which brings me back to DeVos. What I find most objectionable about her ‘qualifications’ is the idea that the wealthy must know better than the working and certainly better than the poor. This racialized belief in the wealthy has permeated the United States since contact invasion. The pursuit of property above all else means that those with property are revered. Belief in and reverence for the wealthy is directly at odds with the belief in the public. I don’t mean that the public is synonymous with the poor or working class. By public, I mean the masses, the collective, the complex social entity that we are answerable to. When education furthers entrepreneurship, it centers the will, hubris and occasional beneficence of individuals. In so doing, it erodes its ability to even imagine the public.
Without a doubt, DeVos must be denounced and dumped. But in that work, we might be able to agitate the stranglehold that coloniality, in the form of racial capitalism, has on education. Dumping DeVos may well offer the opportunity to shift our mindsets and engage our answerability to what makes an education public and what allows for learning.