Donald Trump, Rebekah Mercer, Betsy DeVos, Milton Friedman, and the Education Business
President-elect Donald Trump’s plan for US education:
The charter school.
Forced competition for the neighborhood school.
However, Trump does not have an established history for supporting charters and vouchers. He is new to this bandwagon. Nevertheless, as of August 17, 2016, Trump began clearly supporting school choice.
The timing appears to be tied with the involvement of hedge fund heiress Rebekah Mercer as part of his campaign.
Let’s start with Mercer.
As the September 15, 2016, Daily Beast observes:
Trump’s brand spanking new focus on charter schools coincides with the growing clout of the Mercer family in his presidential campaign. On Aug. 17, The Hill reported that billionaire family—who had previously supported Ted Cruz—was behind major staffing shifts that Trump made. Politico and The Washington Post have also explored the Mercers’ substantial influence on him.
Rebekah Mercer, who runs the family’s charitable foundation and homeschools her four children, is known as a strong supporter of school-choice policies. Her foundation is a generous supporter of the Moving Picture Institute, which has made movies that support the school-choice movement. Their foundation also gave almost $1 million to the Barry Goldwater Institute from 2011 to 2014. That organization is known nationwide for its role in supporting Arizona’s school-choice policy overhauls. Mercer is also a board member of a conservative think tank called the Manhattan Institute, which has drawn ire from national teachers unions for its support of charter schools.
And as the November 21, 2016, Politico reports:
Rebekah Mercer, a 42-year-old who homeschools her young children, rarely visits Trump Tower and has a relatively narrow official portfolio in Trump’s transition effort. Her influence comes instead from her close relationships with the people and groups carrying out the day-to-day work of building Trump’s administration and political apparatus, some of whom have been the beneficiaries of millions of dollars of funding from her family.
Mercer’s influence in Trump’s transition effort — detailed here for the first time — calls into question Trump’s campaign trail boasts that his own fortune, which he used to partly fund his campaign, would make him independent from deep-pocketed donors and special interests he railed against on the campaign trail. …
“It would be difficult to overstate Rebekah’s influence in Trump world right now,” said one GOP fundraiser who has worked with Mercer and people in the campaign. “She is a force of nature. She is aggressive, and she makes her point known.” …
Beyond Mercer’s own direct line to Trump, she played a pivotal role in persuading him to bring into his inner-most circle several close allies whose efforts her family has financed to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, including incoming White House senior counselor Steve Bannon and top campaign officials Kellyanne Conway and David Bossie. …
She has grown it in such a way that it distinguished the Mercers as major players on the right even before they became Trump’s biggest and most influential donors.
Most people contacted for this story refused to discuss Rebekah Mercer for attribution, pointing out that she is intensely private and has scolded people for calling attention to her — even to praise her. Additionally, Mercer is known within the conservative movement for harboring grievances against people with whom she disagrees on tactics or ideology, or who merely rub her the wrong way. …
Noting a campaign profile that said Mercer “exemplifies a new breed of activist donors,” [an FEC] complaint [on which the FEC has yet to publicly act] asserted that the Mercer family’s super PAC was “inextricably intertwined with the Trump campaign.”
Now, let’s go from Mercer to DeVos.
In choosing Michigan billionaire and “activist donor” Betsy DeVos as US secretary of education, Trump has nominated a woman who, like fellow “activist donor” Rebekah Mercer, is extremely rich and uses her money to push school choice. The two are part of a growing group of millionaires and billionaires who form a notable part of the Trump inner circle— and who will undoubtedly drive America in the direction of benefiting the well being and whims of the ultra wealthy. As November 29, 2016, Vanity Fair notes:
As he assembles his Cabinet, Donald Trump appears to be soliciting the consoling proximity of not millionaires, of course, but fellow billionaires. As with Trump himself, the net worth of many of his top advisers and nominees for Cabinet positions is difficult to pin down precisely, but there is no question that many of them are among the wealthiest of the wealthy. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s announced pick for secretary of education, for instance, is the daughter-in-law of the co-founder of the privately held Amway Corporation, the multi-level marketing company. (Forbes has pegged the DeVos family’s wealth at $5.1 billion.)…
…The larger point that Trump has surrounded himself largely with the wealthy remains valid. And that’s without mentioning his three children, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Anthony Scaramucci, the hedge-fund manager, billionaire Rebekah Mercer, and billionaire Peter Thiel, all of whom are on Trump’s transition team. …
…The problem is that working-class Americans stand to lose a lot when billionaires are put in charge of the nation’s executive branch. Running a country is not like running a business.
And yet, via billionaire ed sec Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump will push to run American education “like a business.”
Time for some Friedman.
Trying to force American education into a capitalist mold fits well with the idea of school choice. Indeed, the father of vouchers, Milton Friedman, was an economist. In my book, School Choice: The End of Public Education?, I examine Friedman in chapter four. In short, here is some of what I learned about Friedman in writing my book:
- Friedman published his famous 1955 essay promoting vouchers, The Role of Government in Education, at the same time that several Southern states were using vouchers to preserve and reinforce racial segregation.
- His ideas about voucher usage beg for a bloated government bureaucracy that feeds both for-profit and nonprofit education entities.
- He did not address the possibility that the for-profits, nonprofits, or even the government might serve themselves at the expense of defrauding parents and students.
- He assumed that parents could add their own money to subsidize a basic voucher amount, but he did not address the fact that such subsidy could separate students into tiered levels of “haves” and “have nots.” In other words, educational inequity is an unaddressed byproduct of Friedman’s 1955 voucher conception.
- Friedman assumed that the government would adequately finance some “minimal level of education” via vouchers. (In other words, he did not address the possibility that the voucher amount would be insufficient might therefore appeal to only more fiscally able families.)
- He assumed that parents would want to take part in a voucher program.
- He believed in the “efficiency” of “competitive private enterprise” in education “as in other fields.”
- He viewed compulsory education as hindering choice In other words, he viewed “private enterprise” education as superior to “a government administered system” of schools.
- Friedman presumed that via private enterprise schooling, not all students would be educated, or that private enterprise would be held to the obligation to educate all children. (In other words, the schools would not be bound to educate all.)
- In his 1970 article in the New York Times, entitled, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” Friedman discounted any employee behavior that does not garner profits. Whereas he acknowledged that some entities, such as schools, are not profit-driven, he did not account for the fact that for-profit (and even nonprofit) schools could/ would indeed be profit-driven; that they could view students as either profit increasers or profit decreasers, and that social responsibility could (and would) be pushed aside at some “choice” schools for the sake of making money.
Milton Friedman was an economist, and his view of education cannot be extracted from his view of the superiority of the free market and of “effective competition.”
Preserving and promoting the neighborhood school was not Friedman’s goal.
It is not President-elect Donald Trump’s goal.
It is not Trump mega-funder, Rebekah Mercer’s goal.
It is not billionaire school choice purchaser Betsy DeVos’ goal.
And so, the fight for the neighborhood school continues.
We simply have no choice.