Perhaps one could be forgiven for thinking Tuesday’s confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary marked a dark turn for America’s over 50 million students. After all, Senate Democrats spent Monday night taking turns denouncing Mrs. DeVos as being an out-of-touch billionaire historically unqualified for the position. Republican senators found themselves inundated with phone calls from angry constituents. The outcry even persuaded two Republicans to cross the aisle, with Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska stating that Mrs. DeVos was “so immersed in the push for vouchers, that she may be unaware of what actually is successful within the public schools, and also what is broken and how to fix them.”
But is all this doom and gloom really warranted? Short answer: no. For while it is difficult to deny legitimate concerns about Mrs. DeVos’s lack of experience and Washington insider status, the real reason Mrs. DeVos has been the subject of so much criticism has been on account of her commitment to expanding choice in education, or, in other words, a commitment to the idea that parents should be free to make decisions about where their children go to school.
It is nothing short of remarkable in a country founded on classical liberal principles that such a liberty-centric idea should be the subject of so much vitriol. Nevertheless, one often hears the all too common refrain that public schools represent the bedrock of American democracy, and that any move away from state-provided education is a move towards disaster. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, summed up the view of the education establishment when she said that Mrs. DeVos “shows an antipathy for public schools, a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives, and a lack of basic understanding of what children need to succeed in school.” And make no mistake, Mrs. Weingarten, the teachers’ union she represents, and others like her are a part of the education establishment. Indeed, in the midst of a whirlwind of criticism about Mrs. DeVos’s GOP connections, it has hardly been noted that the largest and loudest voice of opposition has come from powerful teachers’ unions, a major voice in the Democratic Party, that see any change to the status quo as a threat to their influence.
And what is it that these groups think they are defending anyway? What is it that children need to succeed in school that school choice advocates simply don’t understand? Surely they can’t be defending a public school system that has seen American students remain stagnant in performance since the 1970s, falling behind in international comparisons, all while spending per pupil has more than doubled in constant dollars. Surely they can’t be defending a system that continues to fail the poor and most vulnerable, where the status quo has meant that your street address determines your child’s opportunity. Of course Mrs. Weingarten and like-minded people would hardly want us to characterize public education on account of its many failures, and instead point to public schools as “the places where we prepare the nation’s young people…to contribute. They are where we forge a common culture out of America’s rich diversity.”
Never minding the debatable thesis that public schools effectively prepare young people to contribute, the idea that public schools ought to forge a common culture out of America’s rich diversity—while seeming innocuous—ought to set off warning bells. After all, what could be more opposed to liberty than the prospect of the state being the sole provider of education, teaching a curriculum over which parents have limited influence? Catholics, and other minorities, should be well aware of the threat such a system poses, as public schools were often used by a majority Protestant nation to evangelize Catholic children in the 19th and 20th centuries in pursuit of forging “a common culture out of America’s rich diversity.”
Perhaps one will argue that things are different today, that a new era of tolerance and acceptance has relegated abuses of the public school system to the history books. Such a thesis, however, seems dubious in the extreme, and hardly addresses the central issue: that a public monopoly on education, by its very existence, represents an existential threat to intellectual diversity and self-determination for one’s self and one’s children.
Under Betsy DeVos, America’s education system can work towards strengthening autonomy, diversity and choice. By pursuing the use of vouchers, tax credits and other choice-enabling policies, Mrs. DeVos can make a positive impact in the lives of students. One need only look at Florida, which used its tax credit program to extend scholarships to 92,000 students last year, the overwhelming majority of whom were African-Americans and Hispanics living near the poverty line. While some have expressed concern that over 70 percent of these funds went to religious schools, it is worth noting that billions of tax dollars go to religious institutions at the college level each year, including federal grants and student loans, without which religious universities such as SLU would be unaffordable to all but the very rich.
Objections to school choice along these lines, therefore, amount to little more than hand waving. The bottom line remains that better outcomes are achieved when the school one attends is not purely a function of one’s zip code, to say nothing of the basic right of parents to raise their children in accord with their own culture and values. Insofar as she works to make choice a reality for American families, Betsy DeVos is a step in the right direction.