It’s fair to say that the nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education is creating some controversy.
And the reason for that is simple. She is a longtime advocate for the decentralization of education decisions to the family level. That makes her a pariah to the education establishment and a blessing to children trapped in failing schools.
I’ve known DeVos for 10 years and have had the privilege of serving with her on the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Board of Directors. Her primary focus always has been on low-income children, a cause to which she had donated considerable time and resources.
She is smart, determined and a strong leader. She was chosen to be a disruptive change agent in a public education system that for decades has failed America’s most disadvantaged students and perpetuated cycles of poverty.
She can be most effective, not by increasing Washington’s power over education, but by reducing it. For example, the strings attached to federal education dollars could be snipped, steering funds away from bureaucracies and toward families that would put them to better use.
DeVos is a firm believer in empowering parents with choices and the resources to pursue them.
It is a topic over which battle lines are drawn. The reality, however, is that there always has been school choice. But it has been reserved for parents who can afford private schools and move into neighborhoods with quality public schools.
Nobody ever questions their right or their ability to pick the best educational environment for their children. Nobody tries to block them from sending their children to religious schools.
School choice only became an issue when the privilege was extended to parents who can’t afford to shop, whose children are assigned to a school by the local district regardless of its quality or whether it is a good fit for them. That is a situation that no parent of means would accept for his or her own child; yet it somehow is deemed acceptable for other people’s children.
Nationally, almost half the students in public schools qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program, an indicator of poverty.
These children represent the core customer base of public education. And that is why providing their parents with educational choices encounters such pushback from those wedded to the status quo.
It is why we see constant lawsuits filed against choice programs. In Florida, the teachers union filed a lawsuit to end a voucher program designed to get poor children out of consistently failing public schools until they improved. And it has orchestrated an ongoing legal assault against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which covers tuition for 90,000 low-income, mostly minority children at private schools chosen by their parents.
Charter schools, meanwhile, are treated like a plague that must be contained.
But consider the results they are achieving. Researchers at Stanford University compared outcomes at charters with traditional public school in 41 major urban areas in a 2015 report. This was one conclusion: “Learning gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for black, Hispanic, low-income, and special-education students in both math and reading. Students who are both low-income and black or Hispanic, or who are both Hispanic and English Language learners, especially benefit from charter schools. Gains for these subpopulations amount to months of additional learning per year.”
Charters do not exist because states allow them. They do not exist because education reformers support them. They exist because parents want them. But all too often these parents are forced to put their children’s names on waiting lists to get in, lists that can never end.
Whose interests are being served here?
There is a simple response to school choice. And that is to improve the product, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, and earn the support of parents.
Betsy DeVos is not an enemy of public education as unions would suggest. She simply believes that students should not be forced into classrooms where they are not learning. In that, she is a champion for parents.
It’s hard to believe such a premise could be so controversial.
Phil Handy is a member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Board of Directors. He served as the chairman of the Florida Board of Education for six years, his term ending in January 2007. He wrote this for the Orlando Sentinel.