It came to light on a Monday morning at the beginning of October that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was planning to visit Ontario later that week. News reports said that DeVos, a champion of “school choice,” would be visiting schools in the Toronto area and meeting with officials from the Ministry of Education.
Reaction from educators and their representatives was swift and unequivocal. OSSTF/FEESO President Harvey Bischof said it was “alarming” and “an affront to our members” that the government would allow DeVos to visit schools in Ontario. And Ontario Teachers’ Federation President Chris Cowley said that DeVos should “keep her backwards ideas out of Ontario.” The outcry was loud enough that it captured the attention of some major U.S. media outlets, including Newsweek magazine and The Washington Post.
Two days after it was first reported, and just one day before it was scheduled to occur, DeVos’s visit was abruptly cancelled. Her office cited “scheduling conflicts,” an explanation that rang a bit hollow in light of the groundswell of opposition that had erupted.
That groundswell of opposition was entirely justified. DeVos’s well-earned reputation is that of an ultra-conservative billionaire whose primary agenda is to discredit and destabilize public schools, while promoting a central role for the private sector in education. She claims to be advocating for “school choice,” which might sound innocuous enough, but it manifests as a range of programs that divert public money away from public education—money that ultimately ends up, either through direct funding or through tuition subsidies to individual students, in the hands of private or religious schools.
In the U.S. states where these programs have been most enthusiastically adopted, funding for public education is already dwindling as tax revenues are funnelled to private institutions—institutions that have almost no public accountability in comparison to public schools. Private schools, for example, can pick and choose the students they admit, which, more often than not, results in racial and other forms of discrimination. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten writes that “this use of privatization and this disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.” To Weingarten, DeVos’s real agenda is obvious: “How better to pave the way to privatize public education than to starve public schools to the breaking point, criticize their deficiencies, and let the market handle the rest—all in the name of choice.”
Given this background, it’s difficult not to be at least a little suspicious about the motive for DeVos’s plan to visit Ontario. The Ministry of Education tried to frame it as an opportunity to “showcase” Ontario’s publicly-funded education system, but does anyone believe that DeVos, whose contempt for public education is well-documented, would be interested in learning anything from our system?
Ontarians may be tempted to assume that our well-established tradition of quality public education keeps us safe from the steady creep of privatization that DeVos is promoting so successfully south of the border. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so smug. We need only look further south, where Mexican teachers have been forced to strike in recent years in an effort to stop the encroachment of private interests into the sphere of public education. Mexico, by the way, also has a long tradition of public education, access to which is guaranteed in the national constitution. But since 2014, Mexican business interests, working with an American company that runs charter schools, have opened at least seven private schools in northern Mexico. That sounds a lot like the thin edge of a very dangerous wedge.
We don’t know for sure why Betsy DeVos was planning to visit Ontario, but given her history it would be hard to imagine that her visit would have served the interests of anyone other than private businesses like those that are benefitting from her policies in the U.S. It’s disconcerting that she was planning to come here, and it’s just as disconcerting that the Ministry of Education was planning to welcome her. Once again, as is so often the case, it was up to educators themselves to take a stand on behalf of public education in Ontario.