The DeVos Dilemma

Betsy DeVos isn't necessarily the savior of American education.

Mr. Trump has just set another precedent: For the first time in American history, Vice President Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos' nomination to be Secretary of Education in President Trump's cabinet.  Never before has a cabinet appointment confirmation ended in a tie; only a handful of appointments have been voted down.

This is yet another sign of just how utterly polarized our politics is.  No Senate Democrat voted for Secretary DeVos, and teachers' unions persuaded two Republican Senators to vote against her.

What horrors did Secretary DeVos represent to inspire such efforts?  Simple: She represents the idea that America's children deserve better than to be trapped in a bureaucrat-assigned public school that takes no responsibility for imparting knowledge and cares nothing for what the parents might prefer for their children.

If a top-down monopoly school system were effective in educating children, this might be tolerable, but it's more or less universally recognized that American public education is failing.  It fails most obviously in poverty-stricken ghetto areas, but even in wealthy areas if you measure by international standards of effectiveness and cost-efficiency.

After decades of fruitless argument and fitful experiment, people are finally beginning to admit that Something Must Be Done.  The question is, what?

Contrary to Democrat rhetoric, money is not the problem, as President Trump pointed out in his inaugural address.  For example, the Baltimore public school system spends more than $18,000 per student per year.  Assuming 25 kids per class, that's $450,000 per classroom per year, and teachers complain that most classes are larger than that.  New York City spends more, or $20600 per pupil per year.

The teacher doesn't cost $100,000 per year, nor does the room.  The other $250,000+ in Baltimore goes up in bureaucratic bloat.  Unionized government employees let the roofs leak and the buildings fall apart while claiming lack of money and criticizing taxpayers for being cheapskates!

Their worries about losing control of the miseducation of black children in failing urban school systems drove the Democrats' bitter battle against Secretary DeVos.  The Democrat's urban base of unionized school teachers and black parents is slowly dying, leaving the remaining Democrat office holders desperate to hang on to what's left.  This confirmation battle was especially bitter because Secretary DeVos is a billionairess who has spent years successfully promoting parents' right to choose where to send their children to school - a choice that leads directly to fewer union employees, fewer union dues, and fewer donations to Democrats.

A Choice, Not An Echo

Ironically, a black Democrat activist named Polly Williams wrote the nation's first school-choice law in 1989, in Wisconsin - which shortly thereafter included religious schools, now the kiss of death for voucher arguments.  The first charter school emerged in 1991.

By the time Harvard Prof. Elizabeth Warren wrote her book The Two-Income Trap in 2003, school choice had so visibly improved educational prospects for poor students that she praised parental school choice and urged that it be supported by taxpayer-funded vouchers:

A well-designed voucher program would fit the bill neatly.  A taxpayer-funded voucher that paid the entire cost of educating a child (not just a partial subsidy) would open a range of opportunities to all children...  Fully-funded vouchers would relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.

In spite of recognizing the obvious success of the voucher movement, now-Sen. Warren let teachers' unions persuade her to help torpedo a Massachusetts voter initiative that would have allowed more charter schools, and argued as vehemently as she could against letting DeVos "destroy our public education system" by supporting more charter schools.  If Ms.DeVos had been quicker on her toes, she might have thrown Sen. Warren's pre-political-career words back at her.

The Wall Street Journal put numbers on the issue.

According to a 2016 study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, using state databases, these are the percentages of students now enrolled in public charters only:

In now-famous Flint, Mich.: 53%. Kansas City: 40%; Philadelphia: 32%; the District of Columbia: 45%; Detroit: 53%.

In Louisiana, which essentially abandoned its failed central-administration model after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans charters are at 92%.

The 45% of students who have escaped the awful schools in the District of Columbia is particularly remarkable given that one of the Obama administration's first acts on taking power was killing a voucher system that had shown great improvement in educating inner city kids at less cost than the public schools.

It's Not About Education, It's About Power

The unions understood perfectly well what was at stake.  In Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker changed the law so that unions could not force teachers to pay dues, unions lost so many members that they had to lay off staff and couldn't donate nearly as much to Democrats seeking public office.  Property taxes went down, and for the first time in decades, Wisconsin's electoral votes went to a Republican.

The state-funded colleges are not at all happy with Governor Walker's programs, and he's returning the favor: He froze tuition in state colleges in 2013, and he's proposing a 5% tuition cut for the 2018-19 school year.  The Wall Street Journal reports:

The UW Board of Regents has been in open revolt against the tuition freeze for years, viewing Mr. Walker’s concession prices as beneath the school’s reputation and dignity. “I don’t want to diminish the importance of tuition, but let’s not get tuition tunnel vision,” UW-System President Ray Cross warned last October. By the way, the new Walker budget brings need-based financial aid to an all-time state high.  [emphasis added]

Cutting tuition reduces the Regents' bragging rights!  Who cares about the students?

Nationwide, Hillary received far fewer black votes than Mr. Obama, partly because of her race, but partly because Mr. Trump pointed out the transparently obvious but unspeakable truth about how ill-served blacks had been by voting for Democrats.  As he boldly put it,

What the hell do you have to lose?

Democrats rightly saw Mrs. DeVos' history of successes in cutting their power by promoting non-union schools as an existential threat.  The fact that union-supported schools do a terrible job in cities where Democrats rule mattered not one whit to the Democrat Senators, who all choose to send their kids to expensive private schools, of course.

This is what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, meant when he warned Harvard graduates of:

" atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses" and a "tilt of freedom in the direction of evil ... evidently born primarily out of a humanistic and benevolent concept according to which there is no evil inherent in human nature."

He also said, "In order for men to commit great evil, they must first be convinced that they are doing good."  We don't see how Democrats can convince themselves that they're doing good by supporting high-cost, failed educational models which trap kids into lives of ignorance, welfare, and crime, but they manage.

We've pointed out that, having experienced evil up close and personal, Mr. Solzhenitsyn knew evil when he saw it even when cloaked in mannered urbanity as at Harvard.

Evil Works Both Ways

So shouldn't we all be celebrating Ms. DeVos' elevation to leadership of American education, over the shrill but ultimately ineffective protests of the massed chorus of leftists?  Not really, because in the long term, Secretary DeVos' actions will almost certainly grant the left the total power over education that they've craved for well over a century.

Consider DeVos' great goal in life - to see parents granted the ability to select which school their child attends without having to move into another district or pay twice by patronizing a private school.  The only way to accomplish this is for voucher programs, or at the least public charter schools, to become commonplace.

The advantage to the students of a wider array of options has been obvious for many years; the dire threat to teachers' union dues and Democrat power has been equally as obvious, which is why voucher programs and charter schools are still as rare as they are.  The courts having long since ruled that both vouchers and charter schools are perfectly Constitutional, the only reason any given locality or state doesn't have them is because its politicians, and ultimately its voters, have decided they don't care enough to make them happen over union objections.

How can Mrs. DeVos change their minds, now that she's been demonized so thoroughly by the leftist media?  The same way the Federal government bends smaller governments to its will on everything else: with the almighty power of the checkbook.  Mrs. DeVos can target Federal education funds to districts who choose to see things her way, which will persuade many of them.

Mrs. DeVos' hope is that, by the time her tenure in office ends, the vouchers and charter schools will be too well established to be uprooted.  That's entirely possible, but something far more pernicious will be equally firmly enrooted: the idea that the Federal government ought to strong-arm local school boards.

Haven't we seen the dire consequences of this, with the Obama administration having attempted to crowbar boys into girls' locker rooms all across the fruited land using nothing more than a threatening letter?  Some school districts knuckled under, some ignored the directive, and only a handful openly flouted the command of Big Brother regardless of parental outrage.  And there wasn't even a check attached to the missive.

Donald Trump may be in office, with luck, for eight years.  With good luck, Mike Pence might possibly be elected, but we haven't had four Presidential terms from the same political party since FDR and Harry Truman.  Odds are, at most twelve years from now there will be a Democrat sitting in the White House.

Given all the "Resistance" rhetoric, this Democrat president will be a standard elitist totalitarian, cast into office atop a wave of raving lefty lunatics demanding that the Trump/Pence years be erased in toto.  This applies to everything from the environment to taxes, but most of all, the left has always kept a focus on education because they know that whoever controls the kids' education controls the future.

Up until now, the existence of private schools and homeschooling has provided something of a check on the debauchery of the American public education system; it can only get so bad because parents do have options if they care enough.

Globally, though, this freedom is rare.  In Germany, for instance, homeschooling is outlawed entirely and the handful of extremely costly private schools generally have to use the same curriculum as the government schools.  Indeed, some German families have been granted asylum in the United States because their own government planned to remove their kids because of their desire to homeschool them.

If Mrs. DeVos once establishes genuine Federal control of education, though, that's the future we can look forward to here.  Homeschool and private school families in all 50 states have to forcefully defend their rights in their local legislatures.  It's a lot harder for them to do that against the Federal government.  If we couldn't keep the Obama administration from ramming men into women's bathrooms, can we be confident of keeping a future far-left administration out of our homes?  Hardly.

Would a nationwide voucher program be a good thing for America's children as Professor Warren argued?  Yes - for twelve years, max.  Thereafter, it would mean the end of educational freedom, and the ultimate victory of the left's long march through the institutions.

Be careful what you wish for, Secretary DeVos!

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

Agree that education is the ultimate battleground. Not only do the educators line their pockets, but it is a tremendous source of funds for the Dems. I don't agree that the Dems could easily turn back to downgraded bureaucratic education. It is hard to get parents to accept the inferior education product once they've seen quality. They will know the difference between the inspired education of the older sister versus the mindless indoctrination of the younger brother. I guess the message for Mrs Devos is to act fast and be decisive. Make sure a lot of people get a taste of quality education....and it will be hard for the Dems to sell them that lousy is better.

February 12, 2017 11:29 PM

"If a top-down monopoly school system were effective in educating children, this might be tolerable, but it's more or less universally recognized that American public education is failing."

First, there is no "top down monopoly school system" in America. There are around 14,000 separate public school districts run by locally elected school boards. Please explain how that can be considered a "top down monopoly school system". Hint, it can't! False premise #1.

Second, no, it is not "universally recognized that American public education is failing (sic)". When international test scores comparison are controlled for poverty levels, American students rank at the top. What brings our scores down are the very high poverty levels and the fact that we test all and not just a select few. False premise #2.

Such usage of falsehoods has the effect on me of making me doubt everything else in this opinion piece.

February 15, 2017 11:10 AM

The poor in America are materially richer than anywhere else in the world, and than the middle class in both places. That's no excuse for failing schools.

February 15, 2017 9:50 PM
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