Betsy DeVos and the Pitfalls of School Choice


When Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper in 1776, he was inspired by the truths of the Locke and Pestalozzi. He and his fellow founders sought to created a nation founded not in religion nor in class but in equality and logic. They knew then, and we know now, that among the most important rights of an ideal populace is the right to education. In order to form a stronger union and inspire change and justice throughout the world, there needed to be a system in place to educate the next generation. At that time in American history, this creed was obviously not all-inclusive. Most schools were private, and almost none accepted women, immigrants, or people of color.

By the turn of the 19th century, a majority of American grade schools were funded by states. States included clauses in their constitutions that guaranteed a quality education to every child in their domain. North Carolina, in fact, was the first state to do so. Former slaves fought hard for threadbare segregated school-houses, knowing deeply and truly that knowledge could empower their entire community. It took decades, but by the time Brown vs. Board rolled around, school integration was finally federally mandated under the equal protection clause of the constitution. States were wary to integrate, often opting to privatize rather than mandate racial unity in public schools. This reluctance to integrate accounts for much of the discrepancy in public education today, and a renewed commitment to invest in public school improvement and integration could actually be vital to educating the next generation. Though we are still far from a perfect system, though there remains a hefty inequality along neighborhood, racial, and socioeconomic lines, public education remains a beacon of hope for social mobility and individual empowerment.

But many of the hard-won gains in this 300-year fight for access to quality public education are at risk if Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, is confirmed. DeVos is a Republican from Michigan, and the former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party. She is also the chair of the American Federation for Children, a group advocating for school choice and vouchers. Her husband is the former president of Amway and the Orlando Magic, and her father was billionaire industrialist Edgar Prince. DeVos was educated at Calvin College, a private institution, and earned a degree in business administration and political science. More troublesome than her billions of dollars of donations to the Trump campaign and her lack of experience in education, though, (she is unfamiliar with the proficiency versus growth argument) is her complete and utter support for school choice and privatization of public education.

During DeVos’ tenure in Michigan, she advocated for a system of vouchers that would use federal funds to pay for private school tuition. DeVos lobbied for huge growth in charter schools networks across Michigan, centered in Detroit, which critics contend lack substantive quality. Stephen Henderson, editorial editor of the Detroit Free Press reported: “In Brightmoor [a district of Detroit], the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.” DeVos lobbied the state to pour money into charters even when there was little evidence to support their quality, thus ignoring the public schools that could have received additional funding for improvement.

Not only does DeVos lack experience as an educator and a policymaker, but she has spent her life advocating for policies that exacerbate inequality and violate the separation of church and state. Private schools, even those with religious affiliations, would accept federal and funds under DeVos’ proposed voucher system, allowing the state to neglect the public schools and write off the kids who are confined to their walls. State money should not be given to organizations that promote religious education, no matter the religion, no matter the situation. If voucher supply is limited, the expensive program will lift a few lucky kids who receive vouchers for private schools, while ignoring the vast majority who do not.

The data shows that school choice does not work. In fact, in Ohio and Louisiana, students who used a voucher to attend a private school scored, on average, worse than their “closely matched peers” who remained in public schools. The reasons for this outperformance by demographically similar public school students are unclear, but experts hypothesize that the voucher system does not incentivize private schools to adequately invest in students attending with vouchers.

DeVos is an advocate for the deregulation of charter schools, and made millions of dollars in campaign contributions to Michigan lawmakers, simultaneously advocating that they block the passage of charter regulations. Without government oversight, charter schools have no incentive to provide top-quality education to their students, which is made more problematic because their quality tends to be highly variable. This means that a child attending one charter school may receive an education that is drastically different, and far lower in quality, than a child who attends the charter school right down the road. While, certainly, this discrepancy can occur in public schools as well, without state oversight, there is no force aiming to balance the scales or explicit body responsible for evaluation and enforcement of standards.

Federally propagated school choice would do nothing to alter the apparent racial and socioeconomic segregation of American schools. While it would allow a few students the chance to attend a private institution, it would take money away from the publicly-funded system, a system that can work if we choose to lift up every district. In the spirit of the enlightenment, Congress must choose logic and egalitarianism over privatization and neglect.

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