During her Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was attacked in every way imaginable. She was called names. Her intelligence, commitment, and religiosity were called into question. “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America,” seethed American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Chicago Teachers Union boss Karen Lewis referred to DeVos as a “nightmare.” Speaking a day before the confirmation vote, Minnesota senator Al Franken pointed out DeVos’s supposed lack of experience in the field, insisting that education secretary is “not a job for amateurs.”
The vitriol hasn’t abated since DeVos was confirmed on February 7, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a 50-50 tie. Weingarten proclaimed DeVos’s confirmation “a sad day for children.” National Education Association leader Lily Eskelsen Garcia was defiant. “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos,” she insisted. California Teacher Association capo Eric Heins referred to the nomination as “a blow to our nation.” Filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted, “The Senate Republicans have just sent a big FU to the school children of America. Even the worst countries don’t sh*t on their own kids.” And most delirious of all, Vanity Fair film critic Richard Lawson tweeted, “Betsy DeVos’s policies will kill children. That is not an exaggeration in any sense.”
The viciousness toward DeVos is animated by several things: she is rich, a Christian, a Republican, and, worst of all, a school-choice supporter. As chairman of the American Federation of Children, she has devoted much of her adult life trying to provide children with the best possible education, whether via a private school, home school, charter, or traditional public school. This drives the public-school monopolists crazy, as it hints at an alternative to the nineteenth-century, one-size-fits-all education model they control.
“[DeVos’s] concentration on charter schools and vouchers . . . raises the question of whether or not she fully appreciates that the Secretary of Education’s primary focus must be on helping states and communities, parents, teachers, school board members, and administrators strengthen our public schools,” commented Maine senator Susan Collins, one of two Republicans who voted against DeVos. Collins is wrong. The Department of Education’s mission is, simply, “to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation.” The department has no special brief to promote public schools. Its sole focus is on improving education outcomes.
What those who cling to the education status quo don’t understand—or won’t acknowledge—is that Secretary DeVos isn’t an absolute monarch ruling over a vast national education empire. In fact, the great majority of U.S. education policy and financing is handled at the state and local levels. Fordham Institute president Mike Petrilli points out that the education secretary’s job is to “work with members of Congress and governors, to understand how a bill becomes a law, to provide moral support to reformers as they fight it out in the states and at the local level.” Being an outsider makes DeVos an especially good pick. “The strength of Secretary DeVos’s appointment is that she brings strong independent leadership to American education,” observes National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood. “She will not be steered by organized labor or by the higher education establishment. This means that we have the opportunity for real reform.”
While the establishmentarians are choice-phobic, parents aren’t. In fact, school choice is popular. A recent EdChoice survey revealed that most American parents aren’t getting the educational options they want. When asked about their preferences, 41 percent of parents said that they prefer a private school; 28 percent, a public district school; 17 percent, a charter school; 11 percent, home school. But as things stand now, 83 percent of students attend traditional public schools.
Despite the monopolists’ panic, school choice won’t kill off public schools; they’ll just have to try harder to hold on to their customers. In fact, as EdChoice’s Greg Forster has shown, vouchers make public education better. According to Forster, out of 33 studies examining the effects on public schools where private-school options exist, 31 showed an improvement in public schools and one study showed no effect. Only one study revealed a negative effect on public-school students. I’ll take 31 to 1 any day.
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