Politics & Policy

How Dare Betsy DeVos Give American Families an Educational Choice

(Image: Dreamstime)
DeVos doesn’t deserve to be criticized for supporting worthwhile, effective school reforms.

There are millions of American families who desperately wish that their children could attend a different school. Donald Trump’s secretary of education nominee, Betsy DeVos, wants to give them that option, while all too many on the left would like to preserve the educational status quo.

School reform is a complex and multi-faceted issue, but there is at least one relatively clear divide between left and right: With few exceptions, the Left wants to improve and reform American education by doubling down on financial, moral, and intellectual support for public schools with a unionized work force; DeVos and other conservative reformers, by contrast, want to improve and reform education by introducing market competition and giving families as many viable educational options as possible.

The public-school loyalist scorns private schools as a rich man’s privilege; the conservative reformer, meanwhile, wishes to make private schools a poor man’s choice. The public-school loyalist gives grudging acceptance to charter schools so long as they look and act a lot like the public schools they’re designed to compete against, heavily regulated and staffed with unionized teachers; the conservative reformer seeks to take more risks, freeing schools from burdensome regulation and making it easier to hire and fire teachers.

It is a puzzling reality of American life that the media tends to greet reform with more skepticism than it does the status quo, despite the latter’s persistent shortcomings. A journalistic profession that allegedly seeks to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” is all too often a mouthpiece for entrenched educational power. And all too many in that same profession want a secretary of education who is little more than the chief guardian of America’s failing public schools.

Case in point: Today, Mother Jones printed a lengthy article that exposed DeVos for — gasp — giving large sums of money to private, Christian academies and supporting private-school vouchers as well as independent, less-regulated, public charter schools. DeVos wants as few families as possible to send children to schools they despise. She wants as many children as possible to enjoy the freedom she and other wealthy Americans enjoy: The freedom to find the best school for their child.

It is impossible to create an educational utopia, and school reformers should avoid making grandiose promises. But DeVos’s record is enviable on its own terms, and certainly doesn’t deserve the attacks her critics are leveling. She’s succeeded — with the help of multiple friends and allies — in giving Michigan families much more educational choice, mainly through public charter schools, and she should be lauded for it.

In November, the New York Times ran a piece by Tulane professor Douglas Harris proclaiming that Michigan’s reforms represented the “biggest school reform disaster in the country.” His proof? This study comparing the performance of Michigan’s traditional public schools with the performance of charter schools, which draws a rather startling conclusion:

Compared to the educational gains that charter students would have had in a traditional public school (TPS), the analysis shows that, on average, students in Michigan charter schools make larger learning gains in both reading and mathematics. Thirty-five percent of the charter schools have significantly more positive learning gains than their TPS counterparts in reading, while two percent of charter schools have significantly lower learning gains. In math, forty-two percent of the charter schools studied outperform their TPS peers and six percent perform worse. These findings position Michigan among the highest performing charter school states CREDO has studied to date.

Charter students in the city of Detroit (27% of the state’s charter students), are performing even better than their peers in the rest of the state, on average gaining nearly three months achievement for each year they attend charter schools.

As my colleague, Ramesh Ponnuru, noted in reviewing the controversy, that’s “some disaster.”

Finally, regardless of the outcome of any study in a given city, there is the stubborn reality that school choice is too often opposed by elites who choose to send their own kids to private schools or vote with their feet by buying homes in the best public-school districts, which are not affordable for America’s poorest citizens. These people should be asked a simple question: “If choice is best for your child and your family, why is it not best for my child and my family?”

The Department of Education declares that its mission is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Yes, you can find educational excellence in some public schools. You can also find it in many private schools, charter schools, and home schools.

It’s time to ensure equal access to that excellence. Give choice a chance.

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