Politics & Policy

An Education Leader with One Big Idea

DeVos testifies at her confirmation hearing, January 17, 2017. (Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
Betsy DeVos is the focused campaigner American schools need.

Big institutions aren’t easy to change, and American public education is big: Over 3 million teachers were employed in American public schools in 2016. Walmart, the world’s largest employer, has 1.4 million U.S. employees; the American military has 1.3 million people on active duty.

Since American public education needs to change, as everyone seems to agree, what would it take to turn around an institution that’s bigger than Walmart and the U.S. military combined?

A technocrat who knows many things will never turn around a massive organization. Subtlety and complexity are quickly lost in a sea of 3 million people. The focused leader who knows one big thing at least stands a chance of turning around even the largest organization: One big message, driven home relentlessly, can get through.

Betsy DeVos’s one big idea is school choice, and that big idea brings a secondary effect, which is institutional competition. While her big idea is not guaranteed to fix America’s failing public schools, at least it has a chance — and that’s more than can be said for everything else that has been tried.

Indeed, DeVos would be worse off if she had the kind of extensive in-school experience that liberals so angrily attack her for lacking. If she had been a teacher, administrator, and political campaigner, she would be the fox that knows many things. Thankfully, she’s not. Instead she has stuck with one big idea over a long philanthropic career: school choice. She’s the hedgehog that knows one big thing. And this hedgehog is about to wander into a very complicated situation.

The United States has the best public schools in the world. The top public high schools send nearly all their graduates on to college, and many to the most selective colleges. Faculty and parents are dedicated to the educational task, and most students graduate with college credit already in hand. The quality of these schools supports high housing prices within the district, generating property-tax revenues to fund the schools. Even a whiff of weak school performance will draw the ire not only of parents but of every homeowner with something to lose. It’s a positive feedback loop.

We also have the worst public schools in the developed world. In 1,200 American high schools, a third or more of the students don’t graduate. In 2013, 66 percent of U.S. fourth graders and 64 percent of eighth graders could not read at their grade level, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test. In 2013 the United States spent more per student than all OECD countries except Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland — yet our educational outcomes have hovered around 20th place among OECD’s 34 (now 35) nations. Our worst high schools are essentially prisons with poor security and lots of overhead.

Parents see all of this, and most would rather not be trapped in a bad system. According to a 2013 Luntz Global Public Opinion Survey, 64 percent of American parents said they would send their children to a different school if they could. What that means in practice is that most American parents want — and lack — the option to enroll their child in a better charter, magnet, or private school than the public school they now attend.

Into this complex picture walks Betsy DeVos, a relentless school-choice advocate. The daughter of a public-school teacher, she has never taught professionally and never attended public schools. Her philanthropic career has never strayed from the issue of school choice. She has campaigned in her home state and across the country to give lower-income families the chance to choose the right schools for their children.

Can her big idea fix American public education?

She has campaigned in her home state and across the country to give lower-income families the chance to choose the right schools for their children.

Consumer choice has been a basic tenet of American law since at least 1890. At that time, the field of economics was still evolving, but competition was one of its tenets as well, and it would turn out to be its most enduring. Competitive markets were known to improve products, prevent corruption, encourage adequate supply, and keep prices moderate. And competition happens only when consumers have a meaningful choice between different products or services.

This point was enshrined in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, a statute that remains a cornerstone of American commercial law. Theodore Roosevelt and his successor as president, William Howard Taft, were the original trust-busters, doggedly prosecuting over 100 companies under the Sherman Act in what seemed at the time an uphill battle against large, entrenched interests. Today such high-profile prosecutions are less frequent and arguably less necessary because our society is so committed to the basic principle of consumer choice.

But consumer choice suddenly becomes controversial — and somehow emotional — when it comes to public schools. The local monopoly of the public school went unquestioned until Milton Friedman suggested a free-market voucher system in 1962. His idea didn’t take root right away, but in 1991 some left-leaning reformers in Minnesota passed a charter-school law, creating for the first time the possibility of school choice. Now 43 states and the District of Columbia have passed charter-school laws and 17 states have some form of voucher system.

Still, change is hard. Powerful institutional forces keep millions of American students in poorly performing public schools with no meaningful alternatives.

As Betsy DeVos said in her confirmation hearing, “The human tendency is to guard what is because change is difficult.” She appears to know, after a few decades dedicated to this issue, that most failing schools won’t improve on their own, because teachers, administrators and even parents fear change. To change, the worst schools need exposure to a force more powerful than their own incentives and inertia.

DeVos knows that competition is a force powerful enough to change a sector as big and change-resistant as American education. Perhaps nothing else is. The best evidence that competition might actually be powerful enough to work is the unearthly shrieking now emanating from those who fear change the most: teachers’ unions.

Their shrieking is probably justified. Competition always brings on change, and change within large institutions hurts like hell.

Michigan, DeVos’s home state, is familiar with that kind of pain. By the 1980s it was clear that Detroit’s signal industry was ceding ground to foreign competition — Toyota in particular. It would have been sensible for a company like General Motors to seek out Toyota’s recipe for success and start to replicate it. W. Edwards Deming, an American well known in Detroit, was the inspiration for Toyota’s quality revolution. In fact, Toyota shared Deming’s playbook with General Motors through a joint venture begun in California in 1984.

Deming’s approach was initially rejected by GM, Ford, and Chrysler because it involved massive change, and change hurts. But competition is powerful enough to change even the biggest institutions, given enough time to do its work. Toyota didn’t just give us great Toyotas; it eventually gave us better Fords.

Competition is powerful enough to change even the biggest institutions.

American education in 2017 looks a lot like American cars did in 1987. Average quality is low by international standards. The largest school districts (e.g., Chicago) fear competition the most because, like the Big Three, they know how much pain it will bring. For unions and management alike, the great enemy is not one another; it’s the spectre of competition.

Which is why school choice is the only remaining hope for parents and children caught in America’s failing schools. The Bush administration’s effort to achieve higher public-school performance through the No Child Left Behind Act was finally abandoned in late 2015 after broadly failing to achieve its goals. As reported this week, the Obama administration’s effort to improve America’s worst high schools with $7 billion in federal cash has been judged by the Department of Education itself to have had no effect.

School choice has the power to be different. It may be that some of the worst schools can’t be fixed. For some children, school choice will mean a chance to attend a private or charter school that performs better — or is just a better fit for their needs. For others, the competition brought on by school choice will mean that their local public school will begin to make some painful changes, the way GM, Ford, and Chrysler all eventually did. Either path is far better than the status quo.

Mrs. DeVos’s confirmation hearing saw Democratic senators concede that charter schools could be acceptable as long as they had no effect on public schools. (Senator Murray asked DeVos to commit that she would “not cut a penny” from public schools.) But having an effect on public schools is half the point of school choice. We don’t just want to be able to buy Toyotas. We want the fact that we could buy a Toyota to make our Chevrolets better.

Betsy DeVos will continue to be characterized by her critics as an opponent of public schools. She is no more against American public schools than W. Edwards Deming was against American cars or Theodore Roosevelt was against American railroads. In all three cases, the success of the whole sector required a hedgehog with one big idea: competition. For American schools, Betsy DeVos is that hedgehog, and in 2017 her time has come.

— Dan Currell is a legal consultant who serves on several nonprofit educational boards.

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