Politics & Policy

What Betsy DeVos Should Tell the Senate

DeVos meets with Trump at the Trump National Golf Club, November 19, 2016. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
Her confirmation hearing is a golden opportunity to articulate a positive vision of education reform.

One week from today, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions will hold its confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. secretary of education. The hearing will doubtless feature school-choice champion DeVos parrying Democratic charges that she’s engaged in a nefarious “war on public schools.” DeVos will have to answer such demagoguery, and I trust she’ll do so capably.

But if that’s all she does, it will be a missed opportunity. Her confirmation provides a golden chance to sketch out a principled vision of school reform and explain to a national audience just where school choice fits into that vision. On the national stage, conservatives have long had trouble articulating a coherent, winning approach to education policy. This is strange, because they have a sensible, appealing prescription to offer. Here’s what DeVos could say:

I am proud to be a school reformer who has long fought to expand parental choice. That’s not because there’s anything sacrosanct about school choice, but because choice is a powerful way to empower families, communities, and educators.

Choice alone is not “the answer.” It is only a start — a tool that can help crack open closed systems, free families from unresponsive schools, and allow educators to seek or create environments where they can do their best work. We want to encourage a proliferation of good choices that empower all kinds of children, families, and educators to find the best schools for themselves. At the same time, we must also remain mindful of how the burdens Washington imposes can stymie innovative local solutions to educational challenges.

There are four insights that shape my thinking about the role of the U.S. Department of Education:

First, teaching and learning are natural, intuitive acts. They aren’t the exotic product of some mysterious alchemy. Humans are natural learners, with minds hard-wired to ask questions and seek out knowledge. Adults are predisposed to share knowledge, interests, and skills. Great schools are places where adults engage, inform, and shape young minds. We need to ask whether systems, structures, and bureaucratic rules are getting in the way of the human dynamics of schooling. Parental choice is a powerful way to keep the natural, human dimension of school improvement front and center. It provides families with opportunities to find the school that works for their child today.

Second, Washington doesn’t run schools. While some might wish it were otherwise, all the federal government can do in our system is write rules for schools. Congress can craft laws that tell federal bureaucrats to write rules for states, which then write rules for school districts, which then give directions to schools. So Washington can force states and districts to do things, but it cannot make them do those things well. And when it comes to the complicated, messy work of schooling, whether reforms get pursued matters far less than how they are executed. We have all seen in recent years that inept teacher-evaluation systems and school-turnaround programs can do more harm than good.

Third, reform needs to empower educators as well as families. Educators are trapped in the same dysfunctional school bureaucracies as students. They are beleaguered by inconstant school-board governance and frustrated by paperwork. They experience first-hand the problems of ill-conceived accountability systems and federal efforts to micromanage school discipline. Teachers have every right to be concerned about out-of-touch politicos and capricious bureaucrats. I believe in empowering professionals and enabling them to choose schools and systems where they can thrive — even if that means building those schools from scratch. Charter schools and private schools are able to shake free from many of the heavy-handed, bureaucratic impediments imposed on public schools, while giving educators more chances to teach what they’re passionate about.

Finally, decades of federal education statutes have spawned a paralyzing tangle of rules, regulations, and mandates. Federal guidelines prevent districts from cutting spending that’s no longer productive, prohibit funds from being distributed in sensible ways, and impose crushing paperwork burdens on harried educators. This stifles schools and districts, along with online programs and personalized learning initiatives. A half-century of federal rulemaking has forced state and local officials into a “compliance mindset,” distorting the impact of even reasonable-sounding rules. We need to work with educators, families, and state and local officials to set this right.

Parental choice focuses school improvement on what matters most: the human connection between student and school. This is the right place for school improvement to start. The mistake is for anyone to imagine that this is where it should stop.

We’ll see what DeVos actually says. But here’s hoping she seizes the chance to speak expansively. After all, educational choice is just a policy instrument — a way of shifting power from far-off bureaucrats back to families and educators. Such a transfer of power is sorely needed, to be sure. But it is only a beginning.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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