August 7, 2023

Erik Anderson: Why billionaires like Betsy DeVos push school vouchers in Pa.

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Erik Anderson used to work for the DeVos family in one of their restaurants, where he overheard some interesting conversations.

I have many stories from those years, but my favorite involves one of DeVos’ kids, who loved dinosaurs and, late one Sunday morning, regaled his extended family with one factoid after another. “Nobody knows how they died,” he said at one point, incorrectly. After a moment of silence, the clan matriarch Elsa Prince replied: “Dinosaurs died because God didn’t like dinosaurs.”

I was hardly surprised when, years later, I read that voucher-supported schools in Florida use DeVos-approved textbooks that show humans and dinosaurs walking the Earth at the same time.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, more recently, to learn that DeVos, like her fellow billionaire Jeffrey Yass, has been pressing for the expansion of voucher programs in our state. Given what I know about her family’s grasp of paleontology, I was alarmed nonetheless.

DeVos was among the signatories to a letter sent to Gov. Josh Shapiro, state Education Secretary Khalid Mumin and members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly pressing for the passage of “lifeline scholarships,” or school vouchers.

What is DeVos doing meddling in Pennsylvania’s schools? What does she have to gain?

The journalist Jennifer Berkshire argues that, when it comes to billionaires and their interest in dismantling public education, we tend to overstate the profit motive. The gains to their portfolios are likely to be minimal. The game they’re playing with our children’s lives, Berkshire suggests, is more deeply cynical and self-interested than that.

It is, first and foremost, a class thing.

Billionaires, as I learned firsthand all those years ago, are not like the rest of us. And they want to keep it that way. They want to hold onto their money and power. Public education still holds the promise of being the great equalizer, as the venerable Thaddeus Stevens conceived it, bringing together people from across all corners of society, and offering everyone an opportunity to live their best lives. (In 1835, Stevens described proposed legislation aimed at repealing public education in Pennsylvania as an “act for branding and marking the poor, so that they may be known from the rich and the proud.”)

Equality does not serve the ruling classes well. It never has, which is why the plutocrats lobby so hard against it. It’s why they pursue agendas, such as school vouchers, that are guaranteed to exacerbate inequality.

It is also, relatedly, a race thing.

Read the full op-ed here. 

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