Do you remember when President George W Bush nominated Rod Paige to be the US secretary of education, holding up the “Texas miracle” and saying his hopes were that Mr Paige could elevate the nation’s public schools as Mr Paige had worked to elevate Houston’s?
Mr Bush was, as we now know, working with faulty data—or faulty intelligence, but that’s yet another story. In the end, nobody faults Mr Bush for the No Child Left Behind law that came out of that movement at the nation’s highest education post. We knew Mr Bush’s and Mr Paige’s hearts were in the right place: our pie-in-the-sky goal, which nobody actually thought would ever be achieved at the 100-percent level, should be higher than our grasp—we should aim for every student achieving proficiency in math and reading.
Now instead of talking about achieving proficiency in a few school subjects and setting that as the low bar, Ms DeVos and her ilk have substituted money and profit. “Every” child should have the opportunity to attend a private, religious-affiliated school of his parents’ choice, their mantra declares. And this opportunity will not come by them building more schools or making better teachers, especially not Muslim or Jewish ones, but by them taking money that people paid through their taxes to help fund a system of universally available public schools and sending it to schools that promote a greater division between the haves and the have-nots.
With Mr Paige, we didn’t know any better, and because NCLB was a well-intentioned law that simply outlived its usefulness before crashing and burning, we kept plugging along, issuing waivers, adjusting the difficulty levels of tests, and watering down school curricula.
This time, though, the data are in: Religious-affiliated schools are good but don’t need the money, and charter schools, which are run by private corporations, are sometimes good and sometimes fail to provide an adequate education for students who attend them. Religious education in America has also grown to include homeschooling, even though not everyone who homeschools their kid is doing it for religious purposes. Homeschooling has become inadequate at doing anything besides further isolating children and their learning, restricting that learning to their parents’ ideology.
Data from Michigan show that Ms DeVos’s idea of diverting public money away from public schools and into the hands of for-profit enterprises has failed. About 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit companies, and state law does not hold them equally accountable for their use of the money they get, thanks in large part to laws Ms DeVos helped pass. At her hearing, she wouldn’t suggest holding charter and religious schools “equally accountable” for the money they receive from the same public funds as public schools receive.
It’s a recipe for disaster, and if she is confirmed, we only have ourselves to blame—because this time, we know how bad “school choice” is for public and private schools alike. It’s bad for public schools, because money is taken away, which means educational programming will have to be cut back, since educational bureaucracies (like all government bureaucracies) have a hard time when it comes to simply using money more efficiently. It’s bad for private schools that aren’t accountable, because they could easily fail and leave kids in a lurch, without a school home to call their own as for-profit companies pull the rug out from under their feet.
Furthermore, Ms DeVos left no doubt at her hearing that she has no clue about federal education law, especially the laws governing the requirements to provide for students with disabilities. For her, that’s understandable, since she’s never actually administered a school like the ones she would lead, but for a federal education secretary, that lack of understanding is inexcusable.
“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” says Napoleon, summarizing the Seven Commandments in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
She demonstrated as well that she doesn’t understand how the government holds schools accountable, so her failure to support “equal” accountability for all schools that would receive federal funds, when questioned by Senator Tim Kaine, is really a moot point. She apparently had no idea what Mr Kaine was talking about, laws NCLB ushered in, laws Congress continued in the Every Student Succeeds Act, even as it threw a big part of the responsibility for those accountability measures back to the states.
There are worse things coming, such as an EPA head who actually spent a lot of his life suing the agency he’ll now lead and fighting for laws that destroyed the land in Oklahoma, turning it into an earthquake-riddled fracking zone. So there are worse problems going on right now than appointing an inexperienced person to lead the Education Department. But Mr Trump also pledged to lift the gun-free school zone laws during his campaign, and Ms DeVos spent some time at her hearing standing up for that possibility as well, laughably suggesting that a school might need to keep a gun around to protect itself from “potential grizzlies.”
This, combined with her record of philanthropy against good science education, her misconceptions about disability laws, and her misunderstanding of accountability, is really the unkindest cut of all. This time we go into her confirmation vote with both eyes wide open. If senators confirm her, we will know where they stand. And our kids’ll be fine, because kids are resilient and can adjust to whatever landscape we put in front of them. Our schools—the public ones that the government supports because they can’t get money from any other sources, like rich parents—could take decades to recover.