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Elite class warrior and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is making headlines as she lectures presidents of historically black colleges and universities about the alleged virtues of school choice, and brags to conservative activists that she was the first one to inform Bernie Sanders that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” DeVos’ supporters no doubt interpreted the latter comment as a stab at Sander’s support for expanding the American welfare state via free college tuition, universal health care, and other social programs. Under the neoliberal, pro-business policies of modern government, “welfare” benefits – particularly those aiding the needy and poor – are widely derided as a “crutch,” and as “rewarding” the “lazy” and “undeserving.” What America’s poor need, we are told, is tough love, which is the only way to truly empower them to earn their own keep and learn the value of an honest day’s work. On the education front, both parties have embraced a toxic “market” approach that is producing disastrous results for our nation’s youth.
Modern proponents of the neoliberal paradigm embrace a profoundly ahistorical, appalling, and Orwellian ignorance, which was apparent in DeVos’ celebratory attack on Sanders, and her bizarre comments on school choice. DeVos has little interest in public education as a stabilizing force that enriches society and contributes to civic knowledge and the development of critical thinking. She is also obviously aloof to how willfully ignorant she appears regarding education policy. Her comment to black college presidents was horrifically misinformed and rightly drew fierce criticism, considering that these colleges were historically created not to “empower” black students within a “free-market” system, but to combat racial segregation, which denied minorities basic higher educational opportunities. To better comprehend the absurdity of DeVos “free lunch” comment, it’s necessary to explore the historical origin of the term.
That 7 Letter Dirty Word: “History”
The “no free lunch” saying is drawn from a specific historical time period, dating back to the emerging American urban landscape of the late 1800s and early 1900s. During that time, most major American cities were controlled by political machines, and by party bosses who relied on a patronage-based system of corruption and social control. Most party bosses did not serve as mayors themselves; instead they preferred to work government officials like a puppeteer works a marionette. The most infamous example, of course, was Boss William Tweed, who controlled New York City in the 1860s and 1870s. But there were other party bosses too, such as Frank Hague in Jersey City, Ed Crump in Memphis, James Curley in Boston, and Anton Cermak in Chicago (later Chicago party bosses included Richard M Daley and Richard J Daley). Urban historians Dennis Judd and Todd Swanstrom estimate that, of 20 major party bosses who dominated American cities, 15 were first or second generation immigrants, and 13 never even finished grammar school.
Despite their humble backgrounds, these bosses consolidated political and economic control through a neo-feudalistic system in which power was concentrated at the top with the party boss, next falling to ward bosses/aldermen, then precinct captains, and finally with the mass immigrant base of the machine at the bottom. This pyramid scheme was set up to ensure that poor immigrants – who made up one quarter to one half of all city residents in the late 1800s to early 1900s – remained dependent on party bosses. These bosses offered to the poor many of the benefits and necessities that are today provided via the modern social welfare state, including police protection (via municipal police loyal to the party boss), food, jobs, housing, and even help achieving citizenship.
Essentially buying the loyalty of the poor, machine bosses manipulated the votes of the masses at will, exercising leverage and power over mayors, city councils, aldermen, judges, and other political officials. These politicians were easily enough bought by party bosses who bribed officials directing lucrative city building contracts to machine controlled companies and contract jobs to the machine’s base of voters. In the process, leaders like William Tweed became fabulously wealthy, with various estimates suggesting he pilfered between $50 million to $200 million in funds from Tammany Hall and the city of New York.
It is within this historical system that the “free lunch” took shape. In the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the political center of many political machines was the saloon. These establishments were regularly frequented by city residents, including immigrants and focal points of social and political interaction. Half of Chicagoans in the late 1800s, for example, frequented pubs. And many of these saloons were owned by party bosses, or those serving them. Pub patrons and machine supporters were offered a “free lunch” upon purchase of alcohol, but this subsidy was not “free.” The price paid was one’s political loyalty, the cost exacted was democracy. Poor Americans were forced to trade one of their most basic rights – the power to choose their leaders – for securing the basic means of survival. The point of this story is that, prior to the rise of the modern welfare state, poor immigrants and other disadvantaged groups in America were forced to sell themselves to party bosses to provide for basic needs. Contrary to contemporary assumptions, there was nothing “empowering” about life under the pre-modern, neofeudal system.
The master-slave system established in major cities under machine politics began to change, however, by the early twentieth century. During the Progressive Era, the National Municipal League (NML) was established (in 1894) with the express goal of combating urban party machines. The group consisted of various political officials, planners, journalists, and other social and economic notables, who were dedicated to promoting the “professionalization” of urban governance. The political and economic elites who supported reform had their own selfish and deplorable motives, such as xenophobia and embarrassment over the open-eye sore of urban pay-to-play politics that was dominated by immigrant party bosses and their supporters. But these reforms did at least break cities of the machine based neo-feudal system that dominated politics and public life for so many decades. The efforts championed by the NML, and by urban reformers more generally, included formal voter registration (to cut down on election fraud, which was shamelessly yielded as a weapon by party bosses), introduction of a secret “Australian” ballot (designed to protect urban voters from retribution if they voted against the party machine), introduction of non-partisan elections (without single party ballots that helped the illiterate check a straight-ticket ballot in favor of machine candidates), and the switch to a professional city manager system (designed to cut down on patronage kickbacks), which existed in at least 240 cities by the 1920s.
Also hugely significant to the decline of political machines was the rise of the New Deal social welfare and public works programs. These initiatives created a direct connection and point of loyalty between the federal government on the one hand, and cities’ immigrants and other poor peoples on the other. The New Deal helped cut out the “middle man” party bosses who preyed on the needy; it provided direct subsidies to the public in the form of food assistance, cash subsidies, federal jobs, and other benefits. By the 1930s, party machines had been all but wiped away in American cities.
DeVos and Education “Reform”
This brings us back to DeVos. It seems highly unlikely that she knows much, if anything, about the actual history of the “free lunch.” For her, it’s merely a catch phrase – a slogan used to manage the public mind in favor of education privatization. Anyone familiar with the history of the phrase would know how ridiculous it is to adopt it in the quest to sell neoliberalism as “empowerment.” DeVos and other neoliberals in the Democratic and Republican parties would have Americans believe that eradication of welfare benefits, including public schools, school lunches, food stamps, public housing, and other programs, is driven by an effort to empower “the people.” But the welfare state’s destruction would merely result in the reintroduction of a neo-feudalistic system in America, in which the poor are forced to indenture themselves a corporate aristocratic class (even more so than now) to survive. The return of a Dickensian system of social and economic relations may be a high priority for DeVos and her ilk, but Americans should recoil in horror at just how radical this “reform” agenda is.
George Orwell wrote of the power of propaganda in his classic novel, 1984. In a totalitarian future, “INGSOC’s” (short for the “English Socialist Party” of Oceania) official slogans included: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.” The ideology of DeVos and other neoliberals, and their commitment to gutting public education, both clearly relate back to the third slogan. Despite her own ignorance of history, DeVos continues to sell the privatization agenda to much of the public under the false notion that it will aid and enrich the masses. In reality, the school voucher program DeVos champions represents an authoritarian assault on basic freedoms and democratic community control of education. Charter schools do not generally allow for unions, thereby removing the ability of teachers to democratically influence the workplace. These schools typically prohibit tenure, depriving faculty of any sense of job protection or empowerment to question official “truths,” societal misinformation, and governmental or corporate propaganda. Finally, charter schools are run by a private governing system that is accountable to state officials and administrators, but not to teachers, students, or local parent teacher associations.
Contrary to the conservative claims, charter schools do not simply “empower” students who are unhappy with community schools. In cities like Chicago where charter schools are all the rage, the New York Times reports that about 100 public community schools – or one in five of all public schools – were forcibly closed from 2001 to 2013. These closures meant the termination of countless tenure and tenure track teachers, and greater hardship for poor minority city residents – those who were disproportionately affected by the closings. The charter school “revolution” helped set the foundation for the great Chicago teacher’s union strike of 2012, which was motivated in significant part by faculty, student, and community anger at the prospect of further school closings. So much for the “democratic” empowerment wave of “school choice” that was promised by school privatization advocates. Chicago’s experiment with charter schools did little but eviscerate communities and stifle the public will.
Setting Education Back 100 Years
Supporters of vouchers and charter schools have long claimed that these alternatives introduce “competition” to education, while pressuring community schools to provide better quality instruction. Vouchers supposedly offer students a high-quality private alternative to impoverished public schools. But recent research is damning in terms of demonstrating the utter poverty of these claims. There has never been a consensus in educational research that charter schools (which are largely privatized entities receiving public funds) are academically superior to public community schools. Recent evidence also suggests the tide is actively turning against vouchers. A 2017 study by the Economic Policy Institute concludes that, by assessing learning outcomes across many cities and states, there is “a lack of evidence that vouchers significantly improve student achievement (test scores).” There is “evidence of a modest, at best, impact [of vouchers] on educational attainment (graduation rates), suggests that an ideological preference for education markets over equity and public accountability is what is driving the push to expand voucher programs. Ideology is not a compelling enough reason to switch to vouchers, given the risks. These risks include increased school segregation [as white, affluent families in cities self-select out of public community schools and into private ones]; the loss of a common, secular educational experience; and the possibility that the flow of inexperienced young teachers filling the lower-paying jobs in private schools will dry up once the security and benefits offered to more experienced teachers in public schools disappear.”
The New York Times reports that other recent research identifies negative effects of vouchers on educational quality. Looking at results in Indiana, researchers found that use of vouchers was associated with “significant losses in achievement” for mathematics, and no net gains for reading. Other data from Louisiana, a charter school/voucher paradise following Hurricane Katrina, found that participants in the state’s voucher program, who were largely black and poor, suffered lower test scores in both reading and math.
The Assault on History, and Thought
We live in an era of profound crisis. It is not just that the social welfare state is under assault, threatening the ability of communities to satisfy basic educational and human needs. But the neoliberal propaganda campaign also reveals a proud ignorance to basic historical and contemporary realities. It declares war on history and evidence-based interpretations of reality. Not only does the privatized voucher system not work in serving basic educational needs – it is apparently worsening the quality of instruction. It is a serious sign of the decline of intellectual discourse that DeVos can so shamelessly ignore basic historical lessons of America’s past, suppressing the vital role of the welfare state in prohibiting the re-emergence of neo-feudal relationships between economic elites and the masses. This assault on the public good is sold via Orwellian propaganda that celebrates historical ignorance as virtue, with vouchers and charter schools erroneously celebrated as the end-all, be-all solutions to empowering today’s students.
It is obvious why both parties seek to dismantle the public education system. Knowledge is power, and students who are taught to think critically about the world around them are not ideal worker bees for the low-wage industries that dominate the modern American economy. The vocationalization of k-12 schooling and higher education represent a fundamental assault on liberal arts-based educational programs that historically aim to produce active, informed citizens, and who behave in socially, politically, environmentally, and economically conscious ways. Vouchers and charter schools fit into this larger vocational, neoliberal agenda. In the era of standardized tests, students are trained, not taught, to perform route memorization, thereby scrubbing their minds and deterring the development of critical thinking, limiting the development of inter-personal communication skills, and prohibiting the emergence of advanced interpretative and problem solving skills. But Americans can tell the Trump administration, Congress, and state and local officials “no more” when it comes to efforts to further institutionalize the privatization agenda. This fight will ultimately need to be won at the national, state, and local levels, which provides plenty of opportunities for those committed to public education in America.