Betsy DeVos’s tenure as U.S. education secretary, like Trump’s arrival in the White House, has occasioned existential panic among the Left. It’s a bit confusing, as she hasn’t done anything yet but visit schools and convene meetings, and her policy positions are decidedly mainstream, both among Republicans and the general public. Like DeVos, majorities of Americans think private schools provide a better education than do public schools, and support school choice in various forms.
Although their personalities couldn’t be more different, both DeVos and Trump seem to embody a sort of Rorschach blot signifying doom to the Left. There’s some legitimacy to this panic. As leader of a colossal failure of a federal bureaucracy (which is saying a lot), DeVos can do little to benefit Americans besides dismantle her own department. Yet while just about any real accomplishment is unlikely during her tenure, given the Republican Congress’s refusal to make the hard choices required of governing, DeVos frightens the heebiejeebies out of the Left because her marquee policy—school choice—uncovers their intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
Just about every week, one can find prominent outlets attacking DeVos and school choice. This week it’s at least The Atlantic, The New York Times, and NPR’s “This American Life.” The DeVos family has bankrolled charter-school initiatives and school-voucher advocacy organizations, so these articles invariably tie Mrs. DeVos to the outcomes of policies with those labels. That would sound reasonable except she’s never created a law or regulation, since she never held public office before this year. Holding DeVos responsible for “school choice” is like blaming a pizza fan for a pizza for which he has created neither the recipe nor the actual pie.
Just like public schools, “school choice” is not created equal. The same conditions and mentality choking the life out of U.S. public schools also has a grip on all the “school choice” programs in existence, since for some reason the people who have zero track record of producing excellence in any system of education are typically given power to regulate school “choice” programs. Then people who subordinate facts to ideology write feature articles or prognosticate about the outcomes in major American media.
Blame Betsy DeVos, Not Failed Public Education?
The NYT article poses as a deep dive into education in Michigan, DeVos’s home state, which it laughably calls an “unregulated” “Wild West” for charter schools—public schools run by universities, nonprofits, companies, and even traditional school districts. In Michigan’s “Wild West,” people who want to open a charter school must comply with thousands of pages of state, local, and federal regulations, largely the same as those for traditional public schools, concerning teacher credentials, building codes, special-needs students, curriculum, testing, transparency, budgeting and finance, and more, all with approximately a third less funding compared to the state’s traditional public schools. That may be crazy, but it ain’t for the reasons Mr. New York Times thinks.
The NYT article also cites a 2016 Education Trust-Midwest report that misinterprets another study it cites to claim that “70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings.” Yes, if you don’t adjust the data to account for the fact that charter schools tend to serve poor and minority students. When researchers factored in socioeconomic data to compare apples and apples, as they say, “82 percent of Michigan charters created higher than average growth in reading, and 72 percent had higher growth in math” and “almost all charter schools in Michigan are doing about the same or better than their conventional school counterparts.” Unlike those cited in this article, the most reliable studies, those based on random assignment, do indeed find that comparable charter-school students learn more than their traditional-public counterparts, and typically at substantially less cost to taxpayers.
The article also misleads readers by citing dismal-sounding data about state public school performance. But only about one in ten of Michigan public schools are charter schools. Does it make sense to blame 10 percent of an ecosystem for 100 percent of its problems, especially when research shows the 10 percent is at least comparable to the other 90?
Not to mention the head-slapping insanity of simultaneously noting that Michigan children sit in classrooms with leaky roofs on streets bereft of streetlights because their public education system, particularly in the neediest school districts, is bankrupt due to decades of gross internal mismanagement. Taxes from decades past and decades in the future has been spent by a cabal of feckless politicians and greedy system profiteers. And we’re supposed to be inherently suspicious about charter management companies because government always good, business always bad? Teachers unions and corrupt officials looted Michigan’s public schools, and the answer is to write that failed system a bigger check?
This is where we get to the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of self-styled “public education advocates.”
The Individual Versus the Collective
We see more of that bankruptcy inside the much kinder “This American Life” profile of DeVos. Remarkably, the show seems to have found no one able to say anything personally disparaging about DeVos, besides that the billionaire owns fancy cars she worried about parking in a wrong-tracks neighborhood when she volunteered for five years at a public school. It gives ample time to a 17-year-old young woman DeVos has mentored since finding her inside Burton Elementary School in first grade, helping pay Angie’s way to a better private school, then ultimately hiring Angie and her mother, Wanda, who has a health condition that makes nonflexible work hours difficult.
It is evident that DeVos was careful to give without smothering—she doesn’t pay all Angie’s tuition so that her mother contributes also through work, which maintains their dignity and self-determination. Speaking in Spanish with Angie translating, Wanda expresses only deep gratitude, and unreservedly, after allowing Angie to be interviewed privately to speak freely. DeVos comes off looking good, and not through a prepackaged PR specialist, which makes the reporting that much more poignant—especially for a figure who has been so publicly vilified with so little substance to sustain it.
“This American Life” cites, without attribution, the statistic about charters performing in the bottom half of Michigan’s schools that doesn’t account for socioeconomic background, and claims school funding has declined when, inflation-adjusted per-student spending actually increased 5 percent since 1992. The show also hammers at school choice, saying that DeVos helped Angie, and another mentee for whom DeVos also eventually paid private tuition, but not their public school overall. The show frames school choice as a dichotomy between allowing individuals to meet their own needs at the expense of the community’s well-being:
[‘This American Life’ producer Susan Burton, narrating:] When a child leaves a school, the school loses the funding for that child. School choice advocates say this encourages competition and innovation. Schools have to compete to attract children and the dollars that go with them. It’s the free market applied to education.
What makes this complicated is that this money pays not just for that individual child, but for salaries and programs and infrastructure, for all the costs of keeping the school open. Losing that money has ripple effects, and at Burton Elementary…it did not go over well with everyone.
[Burton Elementary Teacher:] It’s super insulting — it’s like all you do, all the hard work you put in is not good enough for me or people I know in general. I find it rather ironic that [DeVos] would tutor a student and then take her out of the school that she was working in. I thought she wanted to make the school better. She could have used her power way differently.
[Burton:] Instead of helping fix the school, Betsy DeVos paid to place the child elsewhere. That was her solution. It was like vouchers for one.
The show then quotes two other folks who, despite charitably attributing good motives to DeVos, think her way of running education pits individuals against the collective. Therein lies another bankruptcy of school choice critics: viewing social goods as zero-sum rather than seeking or even acknowledging the potential for a win-win, and implictly relying upon coercion to force their vision of the good life upon all people they can manage to sweep into their power.
From Zero-Sum to Win-Win
Of course there are situations in which what is good for an individual is not good for his community. Take, for example, the “brain drain” U.S. universities have perpetrated on rural and other culturally pillaged areas, or that our high-skill immigration visas may perpetrate globally. It is entirely fair to discuss tensions between individual opportunity and one’s duty to to give back to one’s family and community of origin.
But we have to do so accurately, and in context. The truth is that conventional American public schooling, because it is based on one’s home purchasing power, is an inadvertent but real tool of racial and economic segregation. Because of this, high-quality research finds that school vouchers have de-segregating aggregate effects, by equalizing families’ purchasing power.
High-quality research finds that voucher programs improve the performance of nearby public schools. Research also finds charter schools reduce the premiums built into home mortgages in school districts, thereby reducing a deflationary effect on the wealth of the poor. The best and most reliable studies find school choice increases student learning while dramatically reducing spending, both for students who exercise choice and those who don’t, as well as for nearby property owners. School choice even has been found to reduce crime!
These are win-win outcomes, and they are well-established by practical experience and reliable research. The research to the contrary is not as reliable as the research in favor. One would think just about any fair-minded person would welcome learning of them, and after a review of the facts would favor implementing them. So why is school choice, and its avatar in little Midwestern-nice Betsy DeVos, so existentially terrifying to the Left?
The Failure of U.S. Public Schools Is a Failure of the Left
Of course there are many factors, but at root it’s because school choice, and the problems it aims to address, put in stark relief the outcomes of the Left’s core conceits about freedom, equality, and the common good, and their choice to prioritize the collective above the individual. U.S. education is in more advanced stages of the bureaucratic technocracy progressives believe is the right way to run society—by coalitions of centralized, largely unelected, supposedly apolitical “experts.” It epitomizes what happens when we force people to sacrifice their personal vision of the good life to public negotiation, displace families and the private sector as the real engines of our civic and economic life in favor of unaccountable, quasi-political bodies, and stifle freedom of association in the name of equality.
What happens? To put it bluntly, the worst-case scenario is Detroit. Or East Germany (and if you check the data about Detroit’s education conditions you would agree that East Germany is not too wild a comparison). The quality of children’s education is determined by their family’s social and economic capital. Prices keep increasing, while quality keeps declining. Dissatisfaction is high among both consumers and providers. School districts and other education bodies are captured by myriad special interests because they have the strongest incentives to persist over time, and if they capture the one power center they win all its domain. This makes a system more susceptible to corruption than it would be if power were more widely held rather than concentrated.
These are the natural outcomes of the Left’s philosophy. They can’t face them, or they’d cease being the Left. The presence of Betsy DeVos and all she stands for makes the massive dissonance between their goals and outcomes all the more apparent, and it’s horribly painful. She takes the pretty mask off their ideology’s ugliness.
The mantras of collectivization sound good. “Good schools for all.” The problem is that when we focus on the collective, the individuals who make up that collective are more prone to get lost. As Dash observes in “The Incredibles” when his mom tells him “Everyone’s special, Dash”: “Which is another way of saying no one is.”
We don’t need everyone to be special to everyone to get good education or good neighborhoods. We just need everyone to be loved by someone. Statistically and naturally speaking, that someone is most likely to be a child’s mother or father. While not all parents are perfect, giving parents in general the capacity to wield genuine power over their own children will create far better outcomes than any other social arrangement. This is what real school choice is about. And its lack is why American education is so dysfunctional.