The Necessity of Foundational Praxis in our Current Times:

On the Betsy DeVos Agenda and Raising Our Collective Critical Consciousness for Social Change

The Necessity of Foundational Praxis in our Current Times: On the Betsy DeVos Agenda and Raising Our Collective Critical Consciousness for Social Change

*CC BY 4.0

Kaitlin E. Popielarz, Wayne State University

“We have a transformative moment before us that starts with telling the truth, but it requires sacrifice, a rethinking of moral values, and dismantling systems of oppression. Deputize yourselves to figure out where you are in the fight.”

- Monica Lewis-Patrick, President and CEO of We The People of Detroit

As an educator and community action researcher in Michigan, I have been organizing against Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for years with colleagues and comrades in Detroit. Through the foundational praxis of critical consciousness in education, we have the opportunity to analyze the DeVos agenda in order to mobilize against the harmful actions and unjust policies enacted by her administration (Apple, 1995; Fraser, 2013; Freire, 1974). Ultimately, DeVos aims to privatize public education in order to direct public funds toward charter and parochial schools. Such motives are contrary to participatory democratic communities that are vital for sustaining the public and common good (Martusewicz et al., 2015). DeVos’ ambitions to dismantle public education are even more disconcerting since she has only attended private and parochial schools in West Michigan as a K-12 and higher education student. Furthermore, DeVos volunteered as a mentor in Grand Rapids Public Schools, but has never taught in a public school. However, by understanding the ways powerful corporate tycoons like DeVos negatively impact public education and the common good, we are able to arm ourselves with radical, loving, and hopeful knowledge in order to dismantle the neoliberal hegemonic state (Anyon, 2014; Buras, 2011; Lipman, 2001; Pedroni, 2011).

I ground my conceptual framework and theoretical understandings of DeVos in the knowledge, testimonies, and critical counter narratives of Detroit citizens (Gonzales & Shields, 2015; Suarez, 2018; We The People of Detroit, Forthcoming; Wylie-Kellermann, 2014). My methods of collaborative research and organizing against the DeVos agenda in Michigan are rooted in grassroots community organizations such as Keep the Vote/No Take Over, We The People of Detroit, Michigan We Choose Campaign, Detroit Independent Freedom Schools, and Michigan Network for Equity in Education (Paris & Winn, 2014; Smith, 2012). In turn, Paulo Freire’s foundational praxis of conscientização, or critical consciousness, is instrumental in order to witness how Detroiters name and mobilize against systems of oppression within their communities and beyond (Freire, 2000). I regard Freire’s development and use of conscientização as foundational due to its incomparable contributions to transformative social change movements in schools, communities, and beyond (hooks, 1994). Significantly, conscientização is made visible through the radical and justice-oriented work of Detroit’s Beloved community against the DeVos agenda (The King Center, 2018).

In 2016, Detroit Public Schools received emergency funding from the State of Michigan in order to relieve the district of the debt it had incurred under mayoral and state-control. While teachers, students, families, and community members mobilized to advocate for equity and justice following the man-made education crisis that almost dismantled Detroit Public Schools, DeVos utilized her platform in attempts to sway elected officials and public opinion toward her own agenda. Through conservative think-tanks and purchased elected officials, DeVos lobbied for legislation that would decimate Detroit Public Schools and punish its teachers. In a 2016 op-ed from The Detroit News, DeVos elaborated upon her agenda:

We need to retire DPS and provide new and better education options that focus on Detroit schoolchildren. Rather than create a new traditional school district to replace the failed DPS, we should liberate all students from this woefully under-performing district model and provide in its place a system of schools where performance and competition create high-quality opportunities for kids. We shouldn’t create a new district that is nothing more than a DPS retread. Absent urgent and serious reforms, the new district will only continue the downward spiral of poor academic performance, declining enrollment and financial instability we’ve seen for decades from DPS … We need reforms that provide better educational opportunities and improve academic outcome for our students. First, we should expand school choice so students could use state education funds at the public or private school of their choice … Other potential reforms include improving early literacy; A-F letter grading that provides parents with meaningful information on school performance; aggressive intervention – including closure – of the state’s lowest performing traditional and charter schools; teacher retirement reforms; school calendar flexibility; alternative certification for teachers; and prohibition of teacher sick-out strikes. A quality education is a top priority for our citizens. Why should educational choice in Detroit be restricted only to the city’s political and civic elite?

For DeVos, the decimation of Detroit Public Schools would pave the way for a competitive market in which students and families could choose between private parochial schools and/or for-profit charter schools. Knowing DeVos’ playbook well, Detroiters organized and advocated for bipartisan legislation that would protect the survivance of Detroit Public Schools. While the legislated rescue plan did not meet the majority of demands from Detroit teachers and community members, it did prevent DeVos from destroying the district and the teachers’ union. Even so, Detroit Public Schools is actively rebuilding due to the ongoing impact of the DeVos agenda at the state and federal level.

DeVos’ agenda is rooted in neoliberal (Burch, 2006) and neoconservative ideology (Clarke & Newman, 2007). Like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, DeVos believes in individualism, meritocracy, and competition to increase profit margins in the capitalist hegemonic state (Gandin, 2011). For DeVos, “traditional” public schools do not serve a purpose since she aims to “empower” families rather than government entities. More specifically, DeVos views individual students and their families as the public who will make decisions about which schools they attend. She does not believe in public institutions, so she will not advocate for the equitable protection of public schools or the Commons (Martusewicz et al., 2015). Instead, dismantling the public good in order to create individual & private markets is her expertise (Ravitch, 2013).

DeVos genuinely believes that school choice will create better options for individual students while directing funds toward private parochial schools and increasing the profits of charter schools. Similar to the ideological beliefs and subsequent neoliberal actions of the Broad Foundation, Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, President George W. Bush, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, DeVos ostensibly advocates for school choice in order for parents/guardians to secure better educational options for children (Dumas, 2013; Davies & Bansal, 2007; Ewing, 2018; Journey 4 Justice, 2014). However, for DeVos in particular, efforts to implement school vouchers and “freedom scholarships” aims to increase the viability of Christian schools and the growth of a neoconservative hegemonic state.

In Michigan, we are well aware that DeVos knows exactly what she's doing. DeVos and the DeVos family oversee for-profit and neoconservative think tanks, such as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the Great Lakes Education Project, that work to buy legislation and push a privatization agenda. We have seen how this has impacted the expansion of unregulated for-profit charter schools in Michigan, specifically in BIPOC communities such as Detroit. We have witnessed how this has negatively affected our most vulnerable communities and marginalized students throughout our state. For example, at the time of this writing, community members are assembling to protect Benton Harbor Area Schools in Southwest Michigan from potential closure, complete charterization, or state take-over due to inequitable school funding, high stakes standardized testing, and faulty accountability systems. It is not an accident that the historical DeVos agenda in Michigan is behind much of the destructive policies and legislation that now impact predominantly African American school districts like Benton Harbor.

Significantly, DeVos' disastrous agenda in Michigan has also proliferated throughout the United States. The tangled web of privatization for corporate ventures aims to dismantle the public sector in order to create profit markets where there were not any before. This can be seen in the unique relationship between Jeb Bush and DeVos who equally champion for-profit school choice efforts through their foundations. Likewise, robber barons like DeVos exist in other public sectors and are actively privatizing the public good and the Commons. Through venture philanthropy, corporate ventures, and the dismantling of democratic systems, DeVos and others, such as Nestlé Waters and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), work to privatize a multitude of public goods and services.

Recently, at the time of this writing, the Department of Education submitted their proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. Through the foundational praxis of critical consciousness in education, we are able to acutely visualize DeVos’ ideology at play in funding decisions. For example, the proposed budget aims to:

  • Push school vouchers deemed "Freedom Scholarships"
  • Increase funding for charter schools
  • Utilize competitive professional development stipends and grants for teachers
  • Reduce funding for Individuals with Disabilities Education ACT (IDEA), Title 1, and Impact Aid
  • Promote school safety by eliminating nearly all civil rights and Title IX guidances

However, we know that these proposed efforts by DeVos’ Department of Education are on par with her agenda as Secretary of Education. Since 2016, DeVos has:

It is vital for all of us to understand that DeVos is not doing any of these actions because she is mean or incompetent. Such a perspective completely misses the end game and negates the agency of the DeVos family agenda, which is to privatize the public good and promote individual choice for a profit. Through the foundational praxis of conscientização, we are encouraged to critically scrutinize DeVos’ actions and her recent public comments that have come under fire. For example, DeVos proposed the elimination of federal funding for the Special Olympics in March 2019. Our critical consciousness helps us to see beyond the proposed budget cuts in order to understand why DeVos would champion such an incendiary decision (Freire, 1974). With a thorough understanding of DeVos’ ideology, we can perceive how the elimination of federal funding to the Special Olympics would encourage privatized initiatives around the Special Olympics in order to create a for-profit market where there was not one before. This would have drastic implications for public schools, the public sector, and beyond. Most significantly, this would cause the Department of Education to directly harm underrepresented students in efforts to increase the profits of venture philanthropists and corporate interests.

If we desire to protect public education and the Commons, we must galvanize our collective critical consciousness to bear witness to the trajectory of the DeVos agenda. In order to secure the safety of our most vulnerable students and communities who are always the most impacted by DeVos, we must stay focused as not to be fooled by her manipulative illusions. As accountable community members and citizens, we have a responsibility to not let DeVos play the American public in the same ways she has attempted to play Michigan’s legislature and constituency. Through the process of conscientização, we are collectively called to action to secure the sustaining futures of our shared communities. In turn, the grassroots organizers of Detroit provide us a blueprint in order to disrupt the oppressive harm perpetuated by DeVos.


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Kaitlin Popielarz is a teacher educator and PhD Candidate in the College of Education at Wayne State University in Detroit. Kaitlin is a former secondary and adult education social studies teacher, which is where she developed her passion for empowering learning communities. Kaitlin's research and teaching interests include connecting teacher education programs to the local grassroots community in order to provide future educators the opportunity to learn community-based and culturally sustaining pedagogies for education rooted in social justice. She is a recipient of the 2019-2020 Graduate Research Assistant Competition Award at Wayne State University. Kaitlin is an advocate and community organizer in Detroit for equitable and inclusive education.