October is National Bullying Prevention Month, observed in school districts throughout our country as a time to raise awareness of and unite against bullying. It’s no stretch to say that if Donald J. Trump were a student in Seattle Public Schools, he would be in gross violation of the District’s policies with his continual stream of personal insults, truculent threats, and his rampant xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and racism.
But the daily drama of the Trump White House can mask the even bigger threat, which is the ongoing, active undermining of our basic rights and public services. In spite of the deep crisis of the administration, this rollback of civil rights and hard-won gains by working people is proceeding at an alarming pace.
A core part of this attack is Trump’s determined effort to dismantle quality public education. This didn’t start with Trump—as education historian Diane Ravitch has pointed out, it’s been a bipartisan undertaking for years—but the new administration is racing ahead full speed.
Trump’s point person in dismantling our education system is new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a billionaire who has spent tens of millions of her personal fortune gutting public schools in her home state of Michigan.
When DeVos comes to our state this Friday, I’ll be out there protesting alongside parents, students, and teachers—as a socialist, an educator, and a proud member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789. I invite you to join us in denouncing the takeover of our nation’s education system by the 1 percent.
Once installed as education secretary, DeVos proposed $9 billion in overall education cuts—a 13 percent drop in federal funding – while shifting money from public schools to private ones.
DeVos, in establishing a task force to look at slashing federal education policies, named as its chair a corporate lawyer who worked for a company facing multiple federal investigations, “including one that ended with a settlement of more than $30 million over deceptive student lending,” according to the New York Times.
DeVos and her private foundation have had huge financial investments in for-profit colleges and early childhood education centers, along with private student loan companies. Predictably, in her first months in office DeVos has rolled back protections and forbearance programs for students facing crushing debt.
Worse yet, DeVos has scaled back investigations of sexual harassment, attacks on transgender people, and other student civil rights violations, on top of the Trump administration’s near-weekly rollback of basic human rights.
It’s no surprise that a big part of the Trump-DeVos agenda is attacking education unions.
Indeed, the Washington Policy Center, the Koch-funded right-wing group that is hosting DeVos’s visit to our state, deflected criticism by claiming that, “The primary obstacle to improving public education in our state are executives at the WEA [Washington Education Association] union.”
But the bullying of workers and the public education system is unfortunately not just a partisan project by Republicans. Democrats, especially the party’s corporate establishment and their funders, have eagerly participated in moves towards privatizing public education and undermining teacher unions over the years, a project which was advanced significantly under Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
DeVos has invested heavily in Laureate Education, Inc., a global private, for-profit college operator that paid former President Bill Clinton $16.5 million to serve as an honorary chancellor.
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, has spent much of his tenure closing dozens of public schools and attacking the Chicago Teachers Union. Just last week, the Democratic mayor faced withering criticism for plans to close yet more public schools while giving million in handouts to wealthy developers.
Closer to home, billionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, a darling of the Democratic Party establishment, has attacked teacher unions. Using rhetoric that would be music to the ears of Trump and DeVos, Hanauer claims that unions are “strangling our public schools to death.”
Meanwhile the bipartisan underfunding of public education in Washington State has continued over decades, even when Democrats have held all three branches of state government.
As we protest DeVos this Friday, we can learn from the recent defeat of a ballot initiative to expand charter schools across the state of Massachusetts. Big business pumped millions of dollars into the “Yes on 2” campaign for raising the cap on charter schools. The “No on 2” campaign was a massive effort led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Boston Teachers Union. The union members went out into communities, getting parents, students, and community members involved – and they won!
In a number of cities over the past months, students have also shown the way through organizing walkouts against DeVos. We need to link this with other actions against Trump’s agenda of sexism, anti-immigrant deportations, racism, and anti-union laws.
These are the kinds of defiant organizing that will be necessary to beat back the war on public education. We must build a powerful, independent movement of students, teachers, parents, unions and all working people to stand up to the bullying of this administration, and to drive Trump out of office.
But we also need to be clear that we will need independent candidates, elected representatives, and a new political party of the 99 percent, who will unapologetically fight for public education and defend teachers’ unions, to demand expanded funding rather than cuts, and to halt the decades-long march of privatization and undermining of quality education as a human right.
Kshama Sawant is a member of the Seattle City Council, the American Federation of Teachers Local 1789, and Socialist Alternative.