The controversy over confirming Betsy DeVos as secretary of Education was overheated and misleading. Both sides were to blame. But I’m not blaming anyone! That’s the way close political contests go. Now that DeVos has been confirmed, it’s time to offer her realistic advice that does some justice to the legitimate concerns on both sides.
I begin with the dumb conservative joke: She can’t destroy public education. The unions have already done that! It is true that in many places unions have too much control over public education. They oppose innovations—such as vouchers and charter schools—that are often best for the students. Whether to go with vouchers or charters should be a prudential decision informed by intimate knowledge of local circumstances. It should be a political decision, not made by educational experts in some undisclosed location or unions protecting jobs or anyone having too much invested in what might be a dysfunctional status quo.
So I’m very disappointed, for example, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s posing of late. She once wrote that the school choice can save struggling parents from the terrible choice of a failing public school or the prospect of bankruptcy through paying huge private school tuition. Rich parents, of course, can just move to where the public schools are better in those exclusive ZIP codes or pony up the private school tuition without a second thought. Vouchers sometimes serve an elementary principle of social justice, given that in some places nobody has a real plan for making bad public schools better.
1. Choice Isn’t a Panacea
Here, in un-unionized Georgia, many public school teachers were dismayed by the appointment of DeVos, including the many conservatives who voted for Trump. They don’t think she has displayed any evidence of knowledge of and sympathy for the degrading struggles they face daily. I’m not thrilled with the caricature that the main thing wrong with education in America is lazy and incompetent teachers with invincible job security protected by unions. All caricatures have an element of truth, but this one is usually (meaning not always) not that true. At all levels of American education, the main problem just isn’t teacher tenure.
So I’m also not thrilled with the idea that the universal remedy for what ails American education is introducing the market principle of choice, which will inaugurate a new birth of efficiency and productivity through competition and even the profit incentive. That’s not to say I’m anything but ferociously in favor of the great American tradition of school choice, producing our singular mixture of public and private education, including home schooling.
Home schooling should be as easy as possible, and regulations free from the bias of the experts against it as an offense against diversity and proper socialization. The saving grace of the whole American system of education is its diversity, and anything DeVos can do to fend off threats to that diversity is welcome.
2. The Neighborhood School Can Still Be Ideal
Still, how to use public funds to educate our young should also be a local decision, and freedom of choice shouldn’t always mean equal access to government resources. Another American tradition, after all, is neighborhood schools. When Trumpians imagine when America was great, they think good schools within walking distance that were community centers.
More precisely, they might imagine, as I do, both a public and a parochial school within walking distance, but with the latter managing to offer a good (often a better) product without government assistance (and very minimal government regulation). When I write my polemical history of American education, I will devote several long chapters to the mistaken political judgments that undermined our tradition of neighborhood schools.
When they can, Americans still seem to choose neighborhood schools. But it’s less and less a choice available to most of us. I notice young parents herding into Decatur, Georgia, where fine neighborhood schools are still available. But they have to be able to pay premium prices for homes and steep property taxes. It’s not a choice available to most Atlanta-area residents.
Often there’s no simple going back to when America was great, and our memories of greatness are pretty darn selective. Still: My parochial school was very socioeconomically diverse, typically had classes taught by a nun who didn’t graduate from college and had 40 to 50 students, featured disciplinary methods that are now pretty illegal, and had no art, music, gym, phys ed, and basically no playground.
But it did get the educational job done for all at a very low-cost, civilized way: Literally everyone could diagram sentences, have decent penmanship (well, I got Ds in penmanship and neatness), do all basic math in their heads, read real books, became literate in patriotic American and pious church history, and recite the answer to every question in the catechism. We were even taught to excel on standardized tests.
That was a great triumph for egalitarian social justice, and it showed that democratic education isn’t all that dependent on level of funding—even less, perhaps, on the imposition of the latest methods of efficiency and productivity, even less still on the latest trends promulgated by schools of education and bureaucrats, and least of all on technology in the classroom.
3. Take Care to Respect Subsidiarity and Solidarity
My only point here is the “reform conservative” principles of solidarity and subsidiarity limit imposing abstract principles in determining what’s best for students. Those principles are articulated so well by Yuval Levin and shared, in some measure, in the rhetoric of President Trump. Solidarity means some concern for the unity of citizenship that brings Americans all together, despite vast disparities of wealth, power, and everything else. Subsidiarity means making as many decisions as possible at the most intimate level of human relationships, encouraging the kind of solidarity that comes from local knowing and loving through shared privileges and responsibilities.
4. Charter Schools Aren’t Perfect But Can Do Good
Charter schools have an uneven record of performance, so judgments about them should also be local. Nonetheless, my limited knowledge of them is quite positive. The Berry College grads who teach in a charter school in the Atlanta area are smart, capable, idealistic, and equipped with the content and academic skills that come through excelling in a liberal arts major.
There’s no way they would have been hired by a public school, given they haven’t taken any of the education courses required for certification. The complex, infantilizing paperwork and supervision that are the vehicle for micromanaging public school classrooms doesn’t touch them much. They are treated as grown-up experts in their fields and so are given considerable autonomy in determining the content of what they teach. They also convey to students enthusiasm for what they know and how they came to know it.
Now, for some, the main point might be they’re incentivized by having no job security—no tenure or union to coddle them. There’s doubtless some truth there, but tenure and such don’t seem so important when a school is genuinely well-run and incentivized by an admirable educational mission, such as a “classical academy.”
Not only that, charters remind me in some ways of the parochial schools of the past. Admission is by lottery, which produces a rare level of socioeconomic diversity. The rich parents trust the quality of the school, and the social capital both of the school and the families of fellow students elevates disadvantaged kids. Public schools, after all, used to be much more that way than they are now. All in all, many charters merit praise on both the solidarity (or civic unity) and subsidiarity (or relational) fronts. Still, there’s no denying that the charter lottery isn’t so for the disadvantaged kids that lose, and the presence of a charter can further diminish the quality of “regular” public schools.
5. Please End the Micromanagement
Having acknowledged that unions are a huge problem some places, reflecting on charter schools leads me to add that the deepest problem in American education at all levels is micromanagement by the interlocking class of administrators, experts, schools of education, and bureaucrats. All schools work best when teachers are educated well enough to be trusted to determine much of what they teach, and given as much space as possible as respected professionals. That means a genuinely disruptive reform would be a massive cutback in the burdensome and cumbersome requirements for certification, accreditation, compliance, and so forth. In one way I sympathize with teachers’ impulse to unionize: Their profession, after all, is being proletarianized.
The secretary of Education can’t and shouldn’t compel such reforms. But she can make it clear that her department will do nothing to facilitate the control of that softly despotic interlocking class. She shouldn’t be the tool of the unions, either, partly because unions so often help impose a monopolistic view of expertise on us all.
Democrats might excel at particularly “politically correct” impositions that undermine both local control and common sense. But Republicans—under, for example, former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings—equally undercut subsidiarity with universal minimalist metrics of competency and efficiency in the mode of the science of economics. Then there’s the Common Core that united Democrats, Republicans, corporations, and Silicon Valley under Bill Gates’ proposition that education can be delivered as efficiently as electricity with the right mix of enlightened experts and their relentlessly mediocre best practices in charge.
Let’s hope DeVos—a genuinely devoted lover of what’s best for students as opposed to what’s best for monopolistic bureaucrats of all kinds—just tells her people to back off in a most nonpartisan way. She shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in the political struggles and sometimes the genuine deliberation and compromise that determine education policy at the state and local level.