Donald Trump has chosen conservative reformer Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary. A better choice would be hard to find.
First under George W. Bush and the No Child Left Behind Act, then under Barack Obama and a long list of intrusive initiatives, the federal government’s role in education has metastasized, growing more and more aggressively in recent years. The Department of Education has bribed states with “Race to the Top” funds to adopt its standards, established prohibitive teacher-licensing requirements that keep competent teachers out of the classroom, and even inserted itself into the prosecution of on-campus sex crimes. And what is there to show for it? In October 2015, the semi-annual National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “nation’s report card,” showed no student progress in mathematics for the first time in 20 years and reading scores dropping for the first time in a decade.
Betsy DeVos will be a desperately needed shock to this inept system. A decades-long education reformer, DeVos has worked quietly behind the scenes to create opportunities for every student to flourish, regardless of zip code. Those efforts started in her home state of Michigan, where in 1993 she and her husband (who, among other philanthropic roles, is on the board of the National Review Institute) helped enact the state’s charter-school law. That was a springboard for a nationwide strategy that backs legislators, candidates, and initiatives that aim to increase school choice, through the organization DeVos founded in 2010, the American Federation for Children. It is arguably the most effective education-reform organization in the country. Candidates whom DeVos has backed include former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who established a statewide voucher program that his successor, Mike Pence, expanded. This year, AFC and its state-affiliated PACs were involved in 121 state-level and local races in twelve states and won 89 percent of them, everywhere from Georgia to Nevada. In Florida, the state’s teachers’ union spent $2.7 million on legislative races, about twice as much as its opponents — and pro-school-choice candidates still won 20 out of 21 state-level races.
DeVos has long been bullish about the prospects for school choice in its many forms, observing that the ineffectiveness of the public-school monopoly, often ruled by thuggish teachers’ unions, has become obvious. It’s part of the reason that Congress passed and President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act last December, the most sweeping education-reform bill since No Child Left Behind, and the most significant deregulation of American education in recent memory — now in need of a secretary who will enforce its terms. Meanwhile, school choice — a term, she has said, that ought to encompass everything from “vouchers and tax credits [to] virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools” — is taking root as a viable, and better-performing, alternative. As education secretary, DeVos will be in the ideal position to roll back the mess of federal regulations that have hamstrung teachers and kept students in failing schools, to restore to states a measure of power over their own education systems, and to help make the government a resource for, not an impediment to, student success.
Conservatives opposed to another four years of top-down meddling in the nation’s classrooms should applaud this principled choice.