Opinion: Restoring faith in public institutions

On March 30, the Senate Intelligence Committee held an open hearing on Russia’s use of “active measures” to affect the 2016 presidential election.

Active measures, including misinformation used to sow discord among allies and distrust in democratic institutions, have long been a tool of Russian efforts to shift balances in power through subversion. The Russians are pros at this, and now social media has made it even easier for them to interject themselves into our lives and create chaos.

For nearly three hours I watched a YouTube video of the hearing as three experts on Russian intelligence testified before this bipartisan committee, explaining the history of this tactic and how it is used to topple democracies. Cyber warfare uses misinformation to tarnish leaders, affect the financial markets, create social division and unrest, and predict global calamity.

The public hearing was reassuring. It was a search for truth. The senators valued expertise. While diverse perspectives were represented, all were attentive and open to learning. I could not tell by their questions what parties the senators belonged to. An essential public institution was doing its job.

Former FBI agent Clinton Watts explained three common objectives of active measures: undermining public confidence in democratic governance, eroding trust in elected officials and promoting distrust in information sources, blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Does this sound familiar? 

The strength of our democracy resides within citizens trusting their democratic institutions. As a public-school advocate, I see public schools as one of those institutions. For me, this trust must include the security and legitimacy of elections, fealty of the courts to the rule of law, competent government agencies, evidence-based decision-making, legislation that promotes the common welfare, fact-based reporting and an independent press committed to the truth.

Russian cyber war has effectively promoted doubt in all of these areas, but it hasn’t just been the Russians! 

My revulsion at the appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education is grounded in her dedication to discrediting one crucial democratic institution—public education. She continues to describe it as a mess and has made dismantling the public system her agenda. Because the primary purpose of public schools is to create an educated electorate, she will subvert the very basis of our democracy if she achieves her goals.

Columnist Jeff Bryant’s recent article, “The Schools Betsy DeVos Wants Parents to Choose,” reviews three schools that the secretary of education praised in recent speeches—a Christian academy, a school funded through tax credits for the wealthy and a third that is facing prosecution for fraud. Her perception of quality is terrifying. Promoting this kind of education is a very disturbing way to fulfill her obligation as a public servant to support public schools.  

Our community knows the destructive impact of vouchers. They drain away scarce resources from the Heights schools, slowly eroding their capacity to create a hopeful environment, both for children and teachers. This year our public-school children will lose $4.6 million so that 473 voucher-users can attend religious schools—most never having stepped into a public school. Vouchers destabilize the public system.

Rejecting the public system is a rejection of democracy. DeVos’s commitment to choice promotes winners and losers, advances individual success without regard to the well-being of our society and disregards civil rights.

The narrative of failure began to gain traction with a 1983 report titled “A Nation at Risk,” which has been used to unravel confidence in the quality of public schools. Contrary to the evidence, the report ignited widespread depictions of public schools as failures, when, in fact, children do better in public schools than in private ones.

While DeVos didn’t start this narrative, she did elevate it to the unthinkable—popularizing a policy to transfer public funds to unregulated, unaccountable, private and religious institutions. Forget a high-quality public system. Instead, it is each man for himself. Who cares if you destroy public confidence in a cornerstone institution and ignore the common good?

It does not make sense in these uncertain times for our public leaders to undermine confidence in the key institutions that provide opportunity and give us a sense of security. That’s what our enemies do.

A major test of our democracy is whether we as citizens can defend our public institutions from a hostile takeover by an ideological enemy. For me it starts with standing up for our local public schools and demanding that our policy makers do the same.

We don’t really need foreign enemies when we’ve got plenty of them at home.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 10, Issue 5, Posted 11:46 AM, 05.02.2017