Classroom Coup: The Billionaire Crusade Against Public Schools

Billionaires Betsy DeVos and Jeff Yass are leading a formidable charge against the very foundation of public education in the United States. Their crusade, masked as a fight for “education freedom,” represents a pivotal battle in the broader war over the soul of American schooling.

At the heart of this saga is a July gathering in Tampa, where former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declared the U.S. Department of Education obsolete, to roaring applause from the Moms for Liberty Summit attendees. This moment encapsulates a seismic shift to the extreme right in U.S. education policy, fueled by groups that view inclusivity and safety measures as threats to their vision of schooling.

But DeVos is not alone on this battlefield. Enter Jeff Yass, a billionaire co-founder of a trading and investment firm, whose fortune burgeoned as TikTok’s popularity soared. With a net worth touching the skies at nearly $30 billion, Yass has become an educational policy juggernaut, pouring millions into efforts to dismantle public education as we know it.

Despite their own public schooling, Yass and DeVos have thrown their financial might behind privatizing the American education system. Yass’s donations, nearly six times larger than those of the DeVos family, have fueled state-level attacks on public education, pushing for privatization through charter schools and voucher programs.

The so-called “school choice” movement has seen a banner year in 2023, with a record number of states passing legislation that drains funds from public schools to support private education without restriction. This movement, spearheaded by Yass and DeVos, champions policies that allow federal funding to follow students rather than supporting community schools, a stance hundreds of lawmakers have eagerly endorsed.

But the influence of Yass and DeVos doesn’t stop at the federal level. In states like Texas, Kentucky, and Idaho, they’ve waged financial wars against rural Republicans who see voucher bills as a threat to public education access in less urban areas. These efforts have resulted in significant legislative wins for privatization advocates, despite the clear risks such policies pose to rural and underfunded schools.

Perhaps most insidiously, the battle for America’s classrooms has co-opted cultural hot-button issues, with PACs like the School Freedom Fund exploiting fears around critical race theory, LGBTQ+ rights, and pandemic safety measures to push their privatization agenda. This strategic fearmongering has secured victories for ultra-conservative candidates and policies, undermining moderate and public education-supporting Republicans in the process.

Yass’s reach extends beyond PACs, with direct contributions to political campaigns like that of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, designed to dismantle public school funding. His financial involvement in state elections, particularly in Pennsylvania, has turned the tide in favor of charter and private schools, regardless of the consequences for public education.

This concerted effort to privatize education raises alarming questions about the future of democratic decision-making in schooling. With billionaires like Yass and DeVos shaping educational policy through their wallets, the very principles of public education—equality, community, and access—are under siege.

The response from grassroots activists and educators has been a beacon of hope. In Pennsylvania, campaigns like AllEyesonYass have mobilized against this privatization push, bringing to light the consequences of billionaire meddling in public education. This grassroots resistance underscores the need for vigilance and action to protect the educational rights of all students, especially those in low-income, rural, and minority communities.

As we look to 2024 and beyond, the struggle over the direction of American education continues. The battle lines are drawn not just around schools and curriculum but around the very idea of what education should represent in a democratic society. In this critical moment, the voices of educators, parents, and students must rise above the cacophony of billionaire interests to reclaim the future of public schooling. For the sake of our children and our democracy, the fight for public education is one we cannot afford to lose.