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Betsy DeVos Frees Alexander Hamilton from Himself

May 6, 2019

On May 02, 2019, the Manhattan Institute (MI) honored two individuals at its 2019 Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner. One of those individuals was US Department of Education (USDOE) secretary, Betsy DeVos.


Betsy DeVos

According to MI, its Alexander Hamilton Award is named such “because, like the Manhattan Institute, he was a fervent proponent of commerce and civic life. ” However, Hamilton was clearly pro-centralized government, which makes the award an MI misnomer since MI uses it to honor the likes of DeVos, whose ideology is much more in line with the Antifederalists of Hamilton’s day.

The contradiction did not go unnoticed; on May 03, 2019, Think Progress published an article entitled, “Betsy DeVos Appears to Have No Idea Who Alexander Hamilton Was” From the article:

…The entire purpose of the agency Education Secretary DeVos leads is to use the resources of the federal government to foster better public education. Let’s also set aside the fact that the overwhelming majority of American primary and secondary school students — 90 percent — are educated by government-run schools. If DeVos plans to fight for “freedom from government,” she is in the worst possible job.

Yet DeVos doesn’t just appear to be rejecting the core mission of her agency and the foundational premise of the American education system. She also seems to have no idea who Alexander Hamilton is or what he sought to accomplish as the architect of much of America’s economic system. The early history of the United States was, to a large extent, a battle between a Jeffersonian model built on agriculture, small government, and slavery; and a Hamiltonian model built on capitalism, economic expansion, and a robust centralized government.

Hamilton’s core insight was that healthy markets and a robust manufacturing sector do not emerge from the ether so long as centralized authorities do not interfere. Rather, the vibrant economy that Hamilton helped build depends on a strong central government authority.

Below are excerpts from DeVos’ speech for the MI event, which she characteristically uses as a slant for her own pro-choice, anti-union agenda:

The Federalist Papers, to which Hamilton contributed a great deal, cautioned against a tyranny of factions. These groups of agitators jealously protect and advance their own self-interests to the detriment of just about everyone else.

Sound familiar? Education unions, the association of this, the organization of that… those are today’s factions. One of their own, the late Al Shanker, said this: “I don’t see a voice for students in the bargaining process. I think it’s one of the facts of life… the consumer, basically, is left out.”

That union boss admitted then what’s still true today: factions keep student voices out. But it’s way past time to let them in!

Note that the Federalist Papers were meant to assuage public fears about a centralized, federal government, but DeVos tries to shape a reference to them in order to discredit teachers’ unions. Furthermore, DeVos appears to be referencing a paper drafted by James Madison, not Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Paper Number 10. A brief summary excerpt from

Although Hamilton wrote the majority of the letters, James Madison authored the ones that are most celebrated today, especially Federalist, Number 10.

Here Madison argued that a larger republic would not lead to greater abuse of power (as had traditionally been thought), but actually could work to make a large national republic a defense against tyranny. Madison explained that the large scope of the national republic would prevent local interests from rising to dominance and therefore the larger scale itself limited the potential for abuse of power.

But let us return to DeVos’ goal: To paint teachers’ unions as factions that threaten a centralized government that she ideologically opposes. In her selective view, DeVos does not consider her school choice push as representing a “faction.” Only what opposes her agenda is the faction.

She is also too quick to put former American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Al Shanker in a pigeonhole convenient to her views. Shanker did not wish to omit children’s needs– their “voice”– from collective bargaining. Consider Shanker’s words from his speech, “Forty Years in the Profession”:

Teachers made great gains in the early years of collective bargaining. There were substantial increases in salaries. In addition, teachers were able to limit and reduce the old indignities, because contracts required that undesirable chores and assignments be shared by all the teachers in a school. And grievance procedures meant that management had to use its authority more prudently, because it was usually subject to external and independent review.

But even in those days, it became evident that the bargaining process was severely limited in its ability to deal with some of the issues that were most important to teachers. In addition to the traditional union goals of improvements in wages, hours, and working conditions, teachers wanted to use their collective power to improve schools in ways that would make them work better for kids. Most teachers entered teaching knowing they wouldn’t be well paid; they were looking for the intrinsic satisfaction derived from doing a good job for their students. So they were concerned about conditions that would allow them to enjoy this satisfaction. But as soon as the words “good for children” were attached to any union proposal, the board would say, “Now you’re trying to dictate public policy to us,” and that was the end of that proposal. …

Although educational issues were an important part of our agenda from the beginning, it was difficult to make headway on them. Even efforts to reduce or limit class size ran into snags. Was class size a working condition for teachers or was it an educational issue? (Where can you draw the line between the two, especially since teaching is inextricably linked with educational issues?) Certainly a very large class could be, and was, viewed as an onerous working condition. But the question of the proper class size for effective teaching and learning was considered outside the scope of bargaining. In some states, any consideration of class size was excluded from the list of appropriate subjects for bargaining.

Collective bargaining can be complicated. Nevertheless, despite the complication, collective bargaining efforts benefit students. DeVos would like to lose such truth. If teachers increasingly become the college-educated working poor, they must work second jobs, or exit the profession, or fight back.

More and more, teachers are fighting back by going on strike.

As Jeremy Adam Smith notes in his Greater Good Berkeley article, “Teachers Strike for Meaning, Not Just Money,” education budgets are being decimated, and teachers are increasingly being asked to do more with (and for) less, and because teachers enter teaching for meaning, not money, that sense of purpose is being used to exploit teachers as classroom funding and teacher pay experience ever-tightening budgetary choke holds.

But how would, how could, a multi-billionaire education secretary ever understand the financial and professional pressures of classroom teachers? I posit she cannot. DeVos exists in a billionaire bubble and wields her anti-union venom from a pedestal of seemingly-endless personal wealth.

No teacher is at her or his best after a night shift elsewhere.

DeVos has no clue.

As teachers strike around the nation, they are demanding more than livable salaries. They are also advocating for the learning conditions of their students.

“There’s No Paper in the Classroom: Why Los Angeles Teachers are Moving Toward a Strike”:

The large class sizes undermine the ability for teachers to properly do their jobs, provide individual attention to students with a wide range of needs and pose a fire safety risk, the teachers argue. …

Though the school district spends a significant amount of money on a variety of standardized tests, teachers are financially burdened with paying for necessary materials out of their own pocket. …

The materials include things like paper and pencils and materials for in-class visuals, projects and experiments.

“These Conditions Are Why Arizona Teachers Went on Strike Today”:

Dated textbooks, broken desks, supplies bought out-of-pocket, rats, and mold. Teachers will protest conditions and pay following rallies in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. …

Public school teachers in these states say they buy routine items — like copy paper and toilet paper — out of their own pockets, and that years of funding cuts to maintenance budgets have led to rats, termites, ants, mold, and decrepit conditions that endanger students. Kids improvise their own athletic supplies and art teachers get creative to come up with materials.

Teachers having to purchase toilet paper for school bathrooms.

US ed sec DeVos does not mention such facts in her speeches.

Betsy DeVos does not advocate for properly-funded public schools. And if your public school is “failing,” she might purposely avoid viewing the situation firsthand.

However, she will faithfully advocate for the right to leave any traditional public school, even if it means creatively twisting Alexander Hamilton into her “freedom from government” pretzel, as she does in her MI award acceptance speech:

First, freedom from government. It’s useful to recall Congress’s commitment when it created the U.S. Department of Education 40 years ago. Then, lawmakers vowed that the move would “not increase the authority of the Federal Government over education [nor] diminish the responsibility for education which is reserved to the States.” That’s the law, and I take it seriously. …

I will continue to fight for freedom. Freedom from government. Freedom for teachers. And freedom for each one of America’s students. ….

And yet, DeVos’ USDOE “freedom from government” keeps taxpayers on quite the hook.

USDOE continues to pave a wide highway of wasted taxpayer money due to lack of oversight of  federal charter school grants. On March 24, 2019, the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a report, “Asleep at the Wheel: How the Federal Charter Schools Program Recklessly Takes Taxpayers and Students for a Ride.” The report reveals that USDOE “wastes hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on grants awarded to charter schools that never open or quickly close.”

NPE’s findings caught Congress’ attention, and they wanted answers from DeVos.

When pressed by Congress, DeVos dismissed NPE as having “a political agenda against charter schools.” So, once again, we have DeVos pointing at the “agendas” of others while excluding her own.

DeVos tries to skirt answering for this waste of money from her own federal office, thereby protecting the right of the federal government to a corruption with which, ironically, antifederalists— those opposing Hamilton’s efforts toward a centralized government– would have taken issue.

At the opening of her MI speech, DeVos comments, “I must admit I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve such an honor.”


So many layers to that sandwich.

DeVos 2

Betsy DeVos


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Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

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  1. Another great piece, Mercedes! Thank you for all you do to combat the likes of Ditzy DeVoid!

  2. DeVos is a product of the very brand of miseducation she would impose on posterity.

  3. Christine Langhoff permalink


    So many layers to that sandwich.”

    And so many layers to that well deserved shade, Mercedes.

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