DeVos, Delusions, and Difficult Decisions

Welcome back, friends! I apologize (again) for my absence (again) in recent days, but I had some important policy business in Washington, D.C. As a matter of fact, President-elect Donald Trump wanted to meet with yours truly to gather my deep and inspirational thoughts on the future of education in America.

Okay, that’s not true. But I really was in D.C., and I really do want to talk about Donald Trump and education.

I wrote recently about what we could expect in the realm of education from a Donald Trump presidency. In that post, which admittedly led to an awful lot of question marks and few firm answers, I said that “a strong pick for secretary of education that seriously redefines and redirects the department could lead to significant improvements.” As it turns out, we got exactly what I was hoping for on that front.

Just before Thanksgiving, President-elect Trump named conservative education activist and mega-philanthropist Betsy DeVos as the next head of the U.S. Department of Education. For those who don’t know, the DeVos family is well known for supporting conservative causes. That’s especially true in their own backyard of Michigan, where our old policy friend Ben DeGrow currently resides.

More importantly, Betsy DeVos has been a tireless (and rather fierce) advocate for education reform and both public and private educational choice. She has been involved in a variety of organizations and efforts to improve education, including her current leadership of the American Federation for Children. She’s fought against excessive regulation on charter schools and for expanded private school choice programs for low-income students. And because of her vast resources, she and her family have been able to directly push back against the political and financial might of the teachers unions.

Those who know me will recognize that I find each of this pursuits to be laudable. Simply put, I’m thrilled with DeVos’s selection as our next secretary of education. Anyone who believes in the power of choice and reform to brighten futures and improve lives should feel the same. And indeed, many of the most influential (and diverse) voices in the school choice movement have written powerful statements in support of DeVos (here’s one of my favorites).

But what about those who oppose the things for which Mrs. DeVos stands? Well, they are understandably not happy. Actually, that’s an understatement. They are positively apoplectic. Here are some examples from my favorite left-leaning opponents of educational improvement:

  • DeVos is “a disastrous choice for the nation and public schools.” – Diane Ravitch

Now, I should mention (yet again) that the assertion that educational will “destroy public education” is demonstrably false. In fact, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence indicates that private school choice programs improve public schools. Further, the argument that helping more children access educational opportunities will damage the country—a country built around the concept of allowing individuals to access opportunities and build success stories—is so patently absurd that it deserves little more than haughty derision. And, of course, Betsy DeVos’s actions quite clearly indicate that she’s not actually interested in the destruction of public education. But then, these folks never have let facts or common sense get in the way of their public statements.

Setting aside the amusement I derive from these unfounded accusations and the head-popping irony of the NEA president accusing someone of advocating for “cookie-cutter solutions to public education,” I consider these acrimonious statements positive confirmations that the president-elect made a wise choice in selecting Betsy DeVos. The unions and their allies are clearly concerned that their power in the education space will be further diminished under Secretary DeVos, and rightly so. I, on the other hand, find that proposition to be a supremely tantalizing one. So tantalizing, in fact, that I feel compelled to include a snarky meme here:

Snark aside, though, our jubilation should tempered to some extent by serious conversations about what happens next—conversations that may not always be easy.

For starters, I think it’s safe to say that such a bold pick on the part of the president-elect signals that the U.S. Department of Education is not likely to be dismantled any time in the near future despite campaign statements to the contrary. It is likely, however, that Mrs. DeVos will significantly scale back the department’s work and redirect its focus toward the most valuable things it can do: conducting and supporting research and facilitating state empowerment. While this compromise may leave some disappointed, I actually think it’s the best outcome from a big-picture perspective.

With the department likely to remain in existence, Mrs. DeVos has a variety of opportunities to move ahead on important education policy issues. She should start by fighting to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was left in limbo after last year’s spending omnibus failed to include reauthorization language. The nation’s only federally funded voucher program serves more than 1,000 low-income students in D.C. Letting it die quietly in the halls of Congress would be a life-changing slap in the face to those students and their families.

Mrs. DeVos should also turn her attention (quickly please) to rethinking the Department of Education’s restrictive proposed rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act—rules that threaten to restrict the law’s intended flexibility and that have both state and national leaders worried that the fourth branch of government is attempting to rewrite legislation.

But what about that Trump campaign promise to put $20 billion into school choice initiatives for low-income students? As I’ve said before, the details of how this program would work both mechanically and financially are hazy. But there’s a bigger elephant in the room that few people have acknowledged: Given its history, do we really want the federal government involved in private school choice?

This question is a particularly tough one. On one hand, the notion of some form of federally backed school choice system for low-income students is not a new one. Additionally, we need to acknowledge the fact that failing to move forward with some type of federal choice initiative should the opportunity arise would deprive tens of thousands of low-income students across the country of the educational opportunities they need to transcend their circumstances. Despite the steady march of school choice programs at the state level, many of these students may never get another chance. That outcome may well be morally intolerable to those of us who see education as the best hope for these students to overcome the obstacles they face.

On the other hand, we must recognize the dangers of allowing the federal government, which has a long and sordid history of attaching enormous strings to any money it hands out, to act as the conduit through which these students can access new educational opportunities. While I have confidence that a DeVos-led Department of Education would not act in a way that would discriminate against certain types of schools, impose dangerous or burdensome regulations on states or providers, or limit student freedom, we must always be mindful of the fact that political tides can and do shift. As President Obama is currently learning, the machines you build in Washington may one day be operated by someone with whom you vehemently disagree.

In the area of school choice, such a situation could be very dangerous—particularly if state legislators were to cede some or all of their responsibilities because “the feds handle that.” In that scenario, we’d see an expansion of the same type of federal dependence we see among states today. That dependence could put students’ educations in jeopardy because, as we all know, the hand that giveth can also taketh away. If state legislators grow unwilling to expend effort or political capital on passing choice programs because they feel it is being handled elsewhere, these students could find themselves without recourse.

There are risks—and potentially serious consequences—no matter which route Mrs. DeVos chooses to take on educational choice. I don’t envy some of the choices she will face in the coming months and years. I do, however, believe she is the among the best possible people to make those choices. I look forward to seeing her in action!