Beyond All Repair

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What Betsy DeVos got wrong about Detroit schools (Detroit Free Press)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held in civil contempt for violating judge’s order on student loan collection (USA Today)

I don’t read that many novels about war — I haven’t been reading many novels at all lately, since I’m chin-deep in research for my next non-fiction book — but I’ve read the same scene in more than a couple of novels, and it’s kind of stuck in my head since I realized how frequently I’ve seen it. In the scene, a vehicle that’s being used to transport refugees away from an active (or soon-to-be-active) war zone breaks down beyond the ability of anyone to repair it right away. Instead of leaving the vehicle for other refugees to repair, the refugees attack the vehicle and basically try to destroy it beyond anyone’s ability to salvage anything out of it besides scrap metal. The reason for refugees doing this is because they don’t know if the people waging war on them might get hold of the vehicle first, and have the means to repair it, so there’s a strong strategic need to make it difficult for opposing soldiers to use anything that has to be left behind for any reason.

Ever since I realized I’ve seen this scene happen in multiple books I’ve read (and confirmed that it’s something quite common in world history, dating back long before the invention of the automobile), I’ve always thought that it was a perfect analogy for how the Republican legislators of my lifetime treat government services: Ride them out for personal profit as much as possible, then destroy them on the way out to make them impossible for others to fix when those others get power. Although neither of the Presidents Bush ever voiced such open contempt for government services, that was a linchpin of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric, and all the far-right ideologues elected since then who espouse Reaganism have certainly done their best to defund, derail and decimate as many government agencies as they can.

“Open contempt” is certainly a fitting phrase for how our current president comports himself in his job, and if his rhetoric about government isn’t enough evidence of that, then the boggling list of vacancies in his administration certainly does a good job of highlighting just how insane things have gotten here. I’ll leave the work of trying to pinpoint this administration’s ultimate aims to others, but maintaining a government capable of serving its people is clearly not on that list. Its defenders may try to claim that everything is okay because “nobody’s died yet,” but, well, that’s a damnable lie. Dead people can’t tell anyone that conservatives are wrong, though, which makes maintaining the right-wing media bubble all the easier. (To borrow programming parlance, the number of deaths isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.)

Add to that the dismissing of the very concept of empathy as a way to silence those of us who speak out for the victims (living and dead) of conservative politics — not to mention all the more forceful efforts being made in that vein — and that media engine is stronger than ever these days. More than that, though, by systematically undermining the American education system for decades — both through rhetoric and legislative power — right-wingers are able to maintain a sizable portion of the population that lacks the knowledge and critical thinking to understand just how they’re being taken advantage of by those in power. The rush of these people to pin any and all of their problems on other people because of the colour of their skin, or their religion, or their gender or sexuality, is only one of the more visible ways this educational deficiency manifests itself.

I work with a lot of students from Milwaukee, one of the first places to adopt the profit-driven education “reforms” that have been sweeping this country like a plague, and students coming to college now in 2019 may have parents who, at least in their high school years, were the first to suffer as public education in this country was gutted to make way for market-driven “solutions” that have only worked to make the rich even richer, and schools for the rich stronger, at the expense of everyone else. Opening up K-12 education to the worst tendencies of capitalism was only ever going to hurt our public schools and the students who go through them, and the fact that so many politicians (Republicans and Democrats) continue hewing to pablum like “choice makes everything better,” despite encyclopaedic evidence to the contrary (that only continues to grow), shows that these politicians, just like the education “reformers,” only care about their own bank accounts.

Just as before, the results of the latest rounds of standardized tests will fail to provoke much-needed discussion of the warped view we get of schools and teachers when we put so much weight on how well their students can fill out bubbles on a sheet, or how systematic and repeated cutting of education funding is a short-sighted “solution” to the problems with our schools that flies in the face of all reason, or how other countries whose education systems continue to improve year-over-year are doing the exact opposite of what we’ve been doing in America for the last twenty-five years. We’ll hear the usual right-wing caterwauling about how teachers are bad and education is bad and knowing stuff is bad, and even more will be done to destroy our public education system, and just enough venal Democrats will go along to make this all seem “bipartisan.” Republicans will rejoice as even more low-income American families will suffer from the damage inflicted to our schools and communities, and while some Democrats may bemoan the end results of all of this, they’ll keep raking in campaign contributions from the capitalist education industry all the same.

We’ve heard this story before, from administrations both Republican and Democratic — remember that Obama made one of these “reformers” his Secretary of Education — but the fact that Betsy DeVos was just found in contempt for disobeying a judge’s orders is a frightening new development. Especially in the past few months, it seems like hardly a weekday goes by without at least one new story of apparent brazen lawlessness coming out of the current administration. If this attitude is spreading now to all the executive offices, then there is literally no limit to what the Department of Education could do in response to the most recent NAEP results. Given DeVos’ previous comments about the role of government in education, the next round of changes her department proposes to our nation’s public schools could be nothing short of apocalyptic.

Regardless of what happens when we go to the polls in a year, and regardless of who assumes the presidency at the start of 2021, America’s public education system is already in dire need of salvaging, especially as we see right-wingers, before our very eyes, do everything they can to destroy it. We can’t allow this to continue unchecked. Even if our power right now is minimal, we need to do everything we can to get our schools back, and to give them the resources they need to make sure that their children get an actual, quality education. We’ve already had one generation of Americans become virtual refugees of the right-wing war on education. They, even more than the schools themselves, are the victims of these attacks, and we can’t afford to cede any more ground than we already have to those who would destroy our schools, and our kids, just to make a little more profit.

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