Wednesday, April 8, 2020
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Some words in praise of Betsy DeVos

I am just as surprised as people who support the nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary at the level of distrust the blogosphere has placed, at least on the record, in her.

As with many of President-elect Donald Trump’s designations for cabinet and other top government posts, Ms DeVos brings a résumé to the job at the top of the US Department of Education that boasts of what I would probably call atypical accomplishments. I base that opinion on the résumés in public education of previous holders of the post, many of whom have worked or taught in public school systems or at universities:

  1. Shirley Hufstedler (none, but taught law students and served on appellate court)
  2. Terrel Bell (superintendent roles in Idaho and Wyoming)
  3. William Bennett (none, but had written extensively on affirmative action, school vouchers, curriculum reform, and religion in education)
  4. Lauro Cavazos (Tufts University; Medical College of Virginia)
  5. Lamar Alexander (Univ. of Tenn.; governor of Tenn.)
  6. Richard Riley (none, but as governor of S.C., improved funding and support for public schools)
  7. Rod Paige (Houston; Texas Southern University)
  8. Margaret Spellings (none, except as associate executive director for the Texas Association of School Boards)
  9. Arne Duncan (Chicago)
  10. John King (New York)

Many writers say Ms DeVos has never taught in a public school, didn’t attend a public school, and didn’t ever send her children to a public school. On that basis, they argue, she’s unfit to become the US Secretary of Education. Ms Hufstedler didn’t ever teach in a public school either, yet President Jimmy Carter saw fit to create the US Department of Education with her in the lead role. Secretaries since her have had very limited experience in the classroom as well, although Ms Hufstedler was a PTA mom.

So when Frederick M Hess, writing in the National Review, asks for a modicum of civility among “pundits so eager to preemptively declare DeVos a menacing ideologue,” we must at least consider the warm welcome all previous secretaries of education have received from the Senate, despite any trouble in their past or lack of actual experience in the education field.

Likewise with Mr Trump’s election. We have learned, at the very least, that Americans don’t necessarily value experience as the top qualification for political jobs, even at the top of the ticket. With this in mind, I expect Ms DeVos’s nomination as US Secretary of Education to be confirmed easily and without much debate.

She will, if confirmed, become the third woman to hold the post and the 12th secretary since the department broke away from HEW (Health, Education, and Welfare) under Mr Carter. I list only 10 above, because Ted Sanders of Illinois served in an interim role following the resignation of Dr Cavazos when George HW Bush became the president. Mr Alexander succeeded Mr Sanders in March 1991.

Mr Hess correctly points out that Ms DeVos has served in several key philanthropic roles in support of the education of American students and takes a poke at the many newspapers and online publications that have tried to reduce the strength of her nomination.

“The horror of it all,” he writes. “Apparently, the 5.4 million students enrolled in 33,000 private schools have no standing at the US Department of Education, parents (like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) who send their children to private schools have no standing in education policy, and graduates from religious schools are to be regarded with suspicion.”

In addition to op-eds in the Washington Post, Salon, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, all critical of Ms DeVos’s experience in public education, education historian and writer Diane Ravitch, who leads the Network for Public Education, has criticized Mr Trump’s pick:

I don’t agree with any of her ideas about school reform, but I think it would be refreshing to hear candid advocacy for privatizing and eliminating public schools instead of privatizers pretending that they want to “improve public schools.” They don’t. The privatization movement should be unmasked as the rightwing, anti-public school movement that it is.

I oppose privatization. I oppose turning public schools over to private corporations. I oppose for-profit schooling. I oppose schools run by for-profit management. I oppose vouchers.

I support community-based, democratically controlled public schools, staffed by certified and well-prepared teachers.

In other words, let’s hear exactly what we’re getting into when it comes to vouchers, charter school networks, online for-profit schools at the K-12 level. Let’s hear some real advocacy for this position, most likely to come from someone like Ms DeVos, so the public can decide if that’s what we really want as Americans.

Mr Hess frames the opposition’s argument in a way that immediately shuts down the debate when, in fact, people seriously want to talk about the worthy ideas she brings. In order to bring the modicum of civility to the debate, requested by Mr Hess, we need to stop shutting down the debate by accusing everyone against Ms DeVos’s nomination with the crime of being against the good education kids receive from so many private schools (that’s not what they’re saying, Mr Hess). We need instead to frame the debate as being one that supports the education many more millions of Americans receive in high-quality public schools.

The way to make low-quality public schools more like those private schools and high-quality public schools is not to attack Ms DeVos personally, but to address, as Ms Ravitch does, the idea of privatization. The drive to divert tax dollars, paid by all Americans in partial support of a system of universally available public schools, is a move to privatize public education in America. Look, private schools and the parents who send their kids there don’t even want those schools to be available to all children.

So I ask, who benefits from increasing federal taxpayer support for private schools? Not the kids at the private schools, because they’re paying for a bit of exclusivity and more individualized access to good teachers. Not the kids at the public schools, because those schools will lose money and have to cut great programs that serve to educate our society. Not the public school teachers. Not the private school teachers. Who benefits? The answer is right in front of us all, Mr Hess, so please stop trying to pull the wool over our eyes so we can’t see it.

I am quite certain, happily so, that Ms DeVos will bring the debate about privatization to the forefront. Then we have to look at it from a governance perspective. What role do governments play if not to accommodate the needs of a nation’s citizens?

Voxitatis has always taken great pride in talking about three big facets of education: academics, athletics, and fine arts.

  • Academics: Average ACT scores for 2015 graduates of private schools well exceeded the national average. The ACT mean composite score for 2015 private school graduates was 23.8, compared to 20.7 for public school graduates. Moreover, the private school advantage remained steady across all subject areas: English (24.2 vs 19.9), reading (24.3 vs 21.0), math (23.1 vs 20.6), and science (23.2 vs 20.7).
  • Athletics: Private schools must apply a “multiplier” in several states when competing in state tournaments against public school teams. According to the Illinois High School Association, the multiplier was implemented “because research concluded that non-boundaried schools above the 450 enrollment level were achieving far greater success in post-season play than boundaried schools of a similar size. This research also indicated that population density was not nearly as much of a factor as school size.”
  • Arts: The only seven-time winner of the Bands of America Grand National Championships is Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois. No other school is even close. Every time I’ve seen this group perform, the sideline and stands are filled with hundreds upon hundreds of parents who have come out to attest to the enormously high level of support these schools and students have from our larger communities.

In short, there is a demonstrable lack of need for taxpayer dollars on the part of private schools, which provide an excellent and well-rounded education for their students. From a policy perspective, we again wonder, who exactly wants taxpayer dollars to go to private schools? They’re doing just fine. But bring on the debate! Welcome, Betsy DeVos, to public life!

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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