As somebody who is married to a teacher, has a registered disability and has a Master’s degree I should be vehemently opposed to a Betsy DeVos nomination. I’m not. Instead I’m excited.
Why? After all, detractors point to her lack of experience on crafting education policy or education in general. And, of course, Elizabeth Warren thinks she supports gay conversion therapy.
So, again, why? Because I move beyond that. Context is important here. She’s not applying to be a teacher, a principle or a superintendent. If that was the case I’d want her to have a background in education. But she’s not. She’s heading a byzantine bureaucracy not a school. At some point it simply becomes impossible for somebody to relate their experience as a teacher into national policies that impact all schools.
Now, with that out of the way I am excited about DeVos for three reasons. First, she’ll bring an outsider perspective to education policy. Second, she has promised to obey legislative and executive edicts. Lastly, she is a rabid supporter of choice and charter schools.
When you operate so long in a certain setting you tend to mimic that setting. Likewise the policies and rules from that setting. For example, Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education mimics the top down approaches of liberal policy experts. It’s about control.
Duncan hails from the Chicago School District where he was Superintendent. In that district rules and policies are crafted based on standardization and simply getting students up to a minimal standard. This one size fits all approach has been mimicked in federal education policy since Obama took office.
In contrast, DevVs, does not have this problem. She might be a novice on policy but that is what staff is for. And let’s be honest, lower-level staff at the Department of Education implement actual policy.
Secondly, she grasps her role in the system. Since 2009, Obama and Duncan have ignored congressional wishes in education. In particular, the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), passed in 2015 by bipartisan majorities. The president has largely ignored the parts of the law he did not like as has Duncan. In her confirmation hearing, Devos said she would implement it as Congress intended. Finally, somebody who understands their role.
Finally, she is a real, honest to god supporter of choice. She doesn’t just talk about it but practices it. Her foundation has given millions to charters and private schools in Michigan and nationally.
We actually have an Education Secretary who understands and supports choice. This might actually mean national policy is crafted to allow states to spend more money on charter schools.
Charter schools and choice is a tricky issue. Many teachers, my wife included, see them as a threat. Others, including minority families trapped in failing schools see them as godsends (NYC and New Orleans).
Depending on the state many charter schools suffer in ways traditional public schools do not. For example, charter schools in many states cannot collect property taxes or pass supplemental levies. They are funded solely through private donations and state general funds. This puts them, oftentimes, in troubling financial situations on a consistent basis.
Additionally, depending on how policy is crafted and what decisions are made down the chain you can have strong charter schools in poor districts and alternatively, charters doing little but catering to affluent white areas.
Fortunately, as a proponent of choice she seems to understand the concerns and alternatives. Still, even so, she iterated in her hearing that states and localities should decide where and how they spend money. Not the Department of Education.
I can hear the gasps now about my excitement. How can I overlook all her flaws? Why, she can’t even decide whether she supports proficiency or improvement. Well, her strengths outweigh her weaknesses.
Obama promised to be a champion for the urban kid and yet appointed a life long union bureaucrat to implement change. That bureaucrat wasted billions trying to force schools to change in exchange for some federal cash.
For all the talk of Trump being a racist he appointed somebody who wants all kids to succeed whether white, brown or black. That is exciting in itself.