Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Betsy DeVos, Rahm Emanuel, and School Privatization

By Karen Lewis — January 24, 2017 4 min read

Last month, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel attempted to signal a difference in education policy between his administration and the incoming Donald Trump administration in a Washington Post opinion essay. With Betsy DeVos as Trump’s pick for U.S. secretary of education, Emanuel wanted to demonstrate his opposition to her pro-privatization agenda through his support for both public education and charter schools.

The problem, however, is that there is very little daylight separating Emanuel’s agenda from that of DeVos, and his model for the Chicago public school system has denied hundreds of thousands of students adequate public education through budget cuts, school closings, and other actions.

Betsy DeVos, Rahm Emanual, and School Privatization: Rahm Emanuel’s criticism of Betsy DeVos ignores the similarities of their agendas, writes Chicago Teachers’ Union President Karen Lewis.

In a city with nearly 800 homicides and more than 4,000 shootings last year, Emanuel refuses to fund wraparound services for students living with this trauma. His Chicago Housing Authority is hoarding a $379 million surplus while we have more than 18,000 homeless students in the city’s school district, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Special education cuts in the public schools have left our most vulnerable students without the services and resources they so desperately need. Seventy-five percent of public schools in Chicago do not have libraries, according to the Chicago Teachers Union (which I serve as president).

Emanuel led the largest mass public school closing ever in one U.S. city—mostly in African-American and Latino communities—and has been accused of fostering educational “apartheid” by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He also is known for his Rolodex full of prominent businessmen and wealthy entrepreneurs who have funded charter school privatization, which set the stage for the aforementioned closures.

Not surprisingly, the only schools Emanuel celebrates in his opinion piece are charter schools. One of them is part of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which named one of its campuses Rauner College Prep after Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. The multimillionaire governor, who supports Trump’s nomination of DeVos as secretary of education, is also on record saying that half of Chicago’s public school teachers are “virtually illiterate” and that half of the city’s principals are “incompetent.”

A recent lawsuit forced Emanuel to release more than 2,000 personal emails, which revealed that Rauner—prior to being elected governor in 2014—was included in education discussions, as were billionaires Ken Griffin (the main donor to both Emanuel’s and Rauner’s election campaigns) and Penny Pritzker (who was a handpicked member of Emanuel’s Chicago school board before serving as the U.S. secretary of commerce under President Barack Obama).

The very people driving education policy ... are blocking the most effective education reform available: equitable funding."

Both DeVos and the billionaires backing the mayor’s education policies apparently believe that because of their wealth, they have the right to impose radical disruption upon low-income students of color and their public school classrooms. Though most of DeVos’ charter and voucher school reforms have had mediocre results at best, she has now been nominated for the highest education policymaking position in the land. Similarly, Emanuel extols the virtues of the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has an atrocious record of expelling African-American students at a rate 7.6 times higher than the Chicago school system’s average for noncharter public schools, according to the group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education. The network also forced teachers to impose draconian rules demanding students pay exorbitant fines or serve detention for innocuous behavior.

The very people driving education policy—Emanuel, DeVos, and the phalanx of wealthy philanthropists subsidizing their ideas through the campaign-finance system—are blocking the most effective education reform available: equitable funding. A new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the one test taken by representative samples of all schoolchildren in the country, the states that invested the most money in their lowest-income school districts saw the greatest academic improvement.

The Chicago Teachers Union supports efforts in the Illinois legislature to secure revenue to fund education, and we demand that Mayor Emanuel act immediately to invest in our schools by releasing additional surplus funds from tax-increment financing, reinstituting the corporate head tax on large corporations, closing carried-interest loopholes, supporting a millionaire’s tax, and other means. Our vision for the schools Chicago’s students deserve includes high-quality, well-resourced facilities with enforceable class-size limits, funding for special education, libraries, wraparound services, and the arts. And these schools must work in partnership with parents, who are an integral part of their children’s education and upon whom our members rely.

Sadly, those upon whom Rahm Emanuel relies for his education policy efforts are uber-rich individuals like Betsy DeVos, who never saw a private school they didn’t prefer over a public one. As Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested in her Senate confirmation hearing, DeVos’ nomination as the education secretary is likely connected to her family’s estimated $200 million in donations to the Republican Party, not a reflection of her commitment to high quality education for all.

When billionaires and educational entrepreneurs can assume the highest office for schools in the land only to dismantle our school systems, the most vulnerable students will suffer the most. Until the time comes when the mayor and the secretary-designate eschew their ties to big money and demand that their wealthy backers pay their fair share in taxes, the school privatization agenda will remain the central pillar in a litany of failed school reform efforts.

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as Betsy DeVos and Rahm Emanuel: Two Sides of the Same Coin

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