Betsy DeVos’ Big Education Idea Doesn’t Work
She embraces an outmoded version of school choice without government interference—even though the movement she claims to champion has realized that model is bunk.
Of all Betsy DeVos’ stated priorities as America’s presumed next education chief—and there have not been very many—her desire to let parents pick the best schools, public or private, for their children remains one of the most consistent and emotionally resonant.
At her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education told senators: “My orientation is around parents and children. When parents choose charter schools, they are doing so because they think it’s a great choice for their children.” “Parents,” she said, “no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning fits the needs of every child.” If you have a kid in school, that’s an easy sentiment to nod to. It’s also, if it’s poorly applied, an outdated and potentially destructive one—especially, the evidence tells us, when it comes to educating the children of lower-income families.
DeVos is sounding an old tune in her insistence on the power of parental choice as a lever to improve education in America. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the notion became a rallying cry for conservatives—and some liberals—eager for states to embrace private school voucher programs, charter schools, or both. (Charter schools are public-private hybrids that typically must follow the reporting requirements of traditional public schools, including test scores and graduation rates. Voucher programs, by contrast, divert public funds—often in the form of “tuition vouchers”—to private schools that lack the regulations and transparency of public ones. Charter schools generally garner more bipartisan support than voucher programs, but several Democrats, particularly black ones, have endorsed vouchers as a potential boon for low-income families of color.)
Although DeVos’ exhortations on behalf of parental school choice are familiar to anyone who follows education reform, today she is wildly out of touch with a large part of the movement she purports to represent. The nearly 30-year history of school vouchers and charters in America has shown that parental choice—in the absence of government intervention—will not improve the quality of education in America and could inflict significant damage on the poorest communities. Indeed, even many of the staunchest early supporters of unchecked parental choice have moderated that stance over the past 15 years. By all appearances, DeVos hasn’t faced a similar moment of reckoning.
Howard Fuller, an early and well-known supporter of school vouchers who founded Marquette University’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, has long advocated for providing poor parents with more educational options. He still believes strongly in the power of school choice. Yet based on experience and evidence, he came to see the need for a greater governmental role—eitherBetsy DeVos’ big education idea doesn’t work.: