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Beware the Solution That Is Not About the Problem: Reflections on Education and the COVID-19 Shock

Empty classroom

A horizontal image of an empty primary school classroom. The setting is typically British.

In the last few weeks U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has put forward three initiatives intended to privatize the provision of public education. Given her long known and widely declared conviction that vouchers and related schemes to deliver public dollars into private hands are the panacea for all that ails education, this is not surprising. Watching her leap into the breach caused by the COVID-19 emergency is troubling, though not unexpected.

In her book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), Naomi Kline describes the phenomenon of a crisis precipitating the redistribution of public dollars into the waiting hands of private players who offer a seemingly undeniable remedy. Years earlier, economist Milton Friedman popularized the notion that only a crisis produces real change, enabling reforms that were not previously thought possible. “When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable,” wrote Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom (1962, ix). Kline’s research led her to coin the term “disaster capitalism,” which she describes as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.” (6)

Kline offers the post-Katrina charterization of New Orleans schools as a case in point. Within 19 months of the disaster, New Orleans public schools were almost totally replaced by privately run charter schools. This occurred while most of the city’s residents were displaced. All of the teachers were fired. A teacher workforce that had been predominately black was replaced with one that was predominately white, young, and barely trained. Massive infusions of funds—private and public—poured in for the “reform.”

Today, as the nation’s school systems struggle to gain equilibrium in the face of ubiquitous school closures, lightening speed transitions to online learning, the sudden reinvention of teaching in the midst of family obligations, unknown timelines for school reopenings, and anxiety about the spread of a deadly virus, Sec. DeVos is moving ahead with her solution to every problem: privatization. 

Every year since President Trump has taken office, his budget proposal has included a range of privatization schemes for education. All have been soundly rejected by the Congress, in a bipartisan fashion. When Congress passed the $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in March, which included $30.75 billion in an Education Relief Fund, they did not envision a new privatization scheme. Yet, Sec. DeVos announced that $180 million of those dollars will go for a state competition to “Rethink K12 Education Models Grants” and another $127.5 million for the “Reimaging Workforce Preparation Grant.” One use of those funds is “microgrants” for families to ensure their access to educational services, which means a family goes to the marketplace and purchases their educational services—a voucher by any other name. Students with disabilities appear to be a prime target for these grants. In announcing the program, DeVos said “I’m looking forward to seeing what they do to provide education freedom and economic opportunity for America’s students.” “Education Freedom Scholarships” is the name of Sec. DeVos’ proposal for a tax credit for businesses that provide funding for students to choose their school.  Apparently for Sec. DeVos, freedom = privatization.

Two notices appeared in the Federal Register in March, seeking public comment on additional privatization schemes. Again, special education is a target. The Department proposes to prioritize the use of State Personnel Development Grants—a $38 million IDEA funded program—for stipends to individual special educators so they may purchase their own individualized professional development services. The second notice proposes to prioritize funds under the Education Innovation and Research program (authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act) to develop and implement teacher-directed professional learning projects rather than ”one-size-fits all professional development activities often funded by school systems.”

While educators have their heads down managing the shock of the crisis at hand, the privatizers are on the march with their solution to every problem. Let’s not let the lessons of Hurricane Katrina and the charterization of New Orleans public schools go to waste.

Jane West is a former Jane West is the former senior vice president of Policy, Programs & Professional Issues at AACTE.


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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant