Hidebound, outdated and often failing, our nation’s education system needs changes — tweaks in some cases and overhauls in others. Inexperienced, ideologically dogmatic and seemingly unconcerned with results or evidence, Betsy DeVos, the nominee for secretary for education, is the wrong person to lead those changes.
DeVos, 59 and a lifelong Michigan resident, has donated, along with her family, more than $125 million to conservative political causes, often related to education reform. She twice served as the chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and has been a primary leader of revamping schools in Detroit for two decades.
The hallmark of change in the Motor City has been an out-of-control expansion of often for-profit charters. Regulations do not demand these schools be run by competent or even law-abiding leaders in order to open or stay in business. Some have been founded by felons. Many are run by poor educators. After 20 years of DeVos’ increasing influence, Detroit has by far the worst-performing schools of any major U.S. city.
DeVos’ opponents, the American Federation of Teachers and New York’s teachers unions, cry that she is a billionaire who never worked in or attended a public school and never sent her children to one. This is troubling. But far more disqualifying are her attempts to paint a public education system that has given millions of students the tools to succeed as a “dead end,” doomed forever because “government sucks.”
Public charter schools are a crucial part of the nation’s educational future. They serve as laboratories for innovation and as alternatives to a “one size fits all” system. But without rigorous vetting and oversight, both of which DeVos and her allies have fought bitterly in Michigan, charter schools are invitations to disaster for students and communities. Where public schools get poor results, extremely limited voucher programs with strict guidelines could make sense to help low-income students pay for private school tuition. Voucher programs are hard to design without causing damage, partly because they take money from public schools and tend to leave the most expensive-to-teach kids, students achieving below grade level or those with special needs, in the public systems. But where public schools are horrid, and proven private or parochial schools can provide great educations at fair prices, the option shouldn’t be dismissed.
But what DeVos has championed is a much broader system of public dollars following students to private schools, a view that supports tax money paying the tuition of families who send their children even without the vouchers. That would greatly undermine public education as a whole, leaving public schools with the most difficult-to-educate students and private schools with the money and the easiest-to-teach kids. And it’s not what taxpayer dollars are for.
DeVos is not wrong to back school reform. Many of her opponents are mistaken in fighting so hard against excellent charters and other innovations, and for the perpetuation of a system that often fails kids. But DeVos’ ideas, where they’ve been tried, have failed. Her vision is mistaken. Her experience is nil. And confirming her as secretary of education on Tuesday could be a disaster.