Politics & Policy

The Stakes on Betsy DeVos

(Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
The American education system needs her.

Up until now, they’ve been shut out by procedural maneuvers as well as by numbers in a Republican-controlled Senate. But Democrats think they finally may be able to score one scalp in their efforts to stop President Trump from getting the Cabinet he wants. The announcements from two GOP senators — Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) — of their opposition to Betsy DeVos’s nomination as secretary of education has drastically reduced the odds of her being confirmed. With only 52 Republicans in the upper chamber, DeVos will either need to get one Democrat to back her or, assuming the rest of the Republican caucus stays in line, rely on Vice President Pence to break a 50–50 tie in order to take her seat at the Cabinet table.

With the teachers’ unions and other left-wing groups perceiving that DeVos is the most vulnerable of Trump’s appointments, there’s little doubt of their ability to maintain party discipline in the Democratic caucus. Their efforts may also convince some other GOP senators that sinking her nomination is a cheap way to demonstrate their independence from the White House or to convince the unions to be less zealous in backing any future opponents. But this is a moment when conservatives and anyone who cares about education reform must mobilize to convince the Senate that DeVos’s appointment must be saved.

DeVos’s defeat would be a black eye for Trump, but, viewed from a historical perspective, losing just one Cabinet appointment wouldn’t be a big deal. Still, the importance of this fight for the future of American education cannot be overestimated. Having a White House that is willing to back the most prominent advocate of reform, along with a Republican Senate, creates a unique opportunity. DeVos’s presence at the Department of Education could begin moving the school-choice movement from the margins of the public square to its center. And that is precisely why the forces that are most opposed to shaking up the public monopoly on education funding are so eager to defeat her.

For over 25 years, school-choice advocates have been chipping away at the education establishment, scoring minor victories in the form of pilot programs in such places as Milwaukee and the District of Columbia. But in many cases, the powerful groups arrayed against them across the country have been able to marginalize them. Efforts to expand charter schools have been successfully opposed in cities such as New York. Moreover, a cottage industry of education experts has arisen to produce studies that serve to buttress the desire of the unions to ensure that any effort to upend the status quo is discredited. Those efforts have been successful, and most mainstream-media coverage of the issue is tilted against choice by research that attempts to prove that providing parents and students with an alternative to the public schools is of no value.

This issue has made hypocrites of liberals who have made a career out of posing as champions of the unfortunate. When President Obama ended a program that enabled a few inner-city kids to attend the elite Sidwell Friends School in Washington, he conclusively proved that helping children was a far lower priority for him than adhering to liberal ideology about an extreme view of churchstate separation and paying debts to Democratic-party allies.

The act of opening up the education system to competition has the effect of forcing all schools to understand that their goal is to serve the best interests of children and families, not those of the people who work in the schools. DeVos has been a heroine of the choice movement, tirelessly working for change and giving from her considerable personal resources to sustain the effort. She has been in the forefront of the campaign to remind Americans that education doesn’t consist solely of the subsidized bailiwick that employs groups of teachers and administrators, but also the entire panoply of choices, including private and parochial schools, that can provide a lifeline to children who need our help.

DeVos has worked to create opportunities for children; her opponents have worked to shut down competition.

But her reward for that has been a campaign of demonization that has attempted to smear her as a religious zealot as well as a corrupt, under-qualified figure who purchased a Cabinet post. But what is most needed at Education is not another veteran of the system but a person like DeVos who has dedicated her life to trying to create more opportunities for children rather than support for the unions’ efforts to shut down competition and choice.

The real question in the debate about the DeVos appointment isn’t about her performance at her confirmation hearing, her wealth, her lack of experience as a teacher or administrator, or even whether Trump and the GOP are willing to expend the political capital to get her confirmed. Rather, it is the basic question of whether Americans are willing to continue writing off those children who either live in areas without good public-school systems or whose parents lack the financial resources to give them an alternative.

Instead of standing by and allowing DeVos to become a piñata for groups that have a vested interest in opposing education reform, those who can afford good schools for their kids must ask themselves whether those children who might benefit from school-choice programs advocated by DeVos are made in the image of God, like our own. Giving DeVos a chance to serve will be the most effective response to a cynical liberal education establishment that — despite their supposed sympathy for the poor — continues to answer, “No.”

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