America’s teachers union leaders typically don’t like secretaries of education. At all. They see the cabinet position as a teenager views a chaperone—a scold who will at least try to keep them from making a bigger mess of things than they already have. And according to union bosses, Betsy DeVos is the Chaperone from Hell.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way!
Hillary Clinton was expected to win, and the national teacher union leaders were promised VIP seats at the table. But now the bosses have been left outside the dining hall, picking through leftovers, and they’re furious.
For several weeks now, newspapers across the country have been filled with their nonstop laments about the appointment. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten bristled, “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.” Chicago Teachers Union capo Karen Lewis referred to DeVos as a “nightmare.” The Badass Teachers Association, which is not a union (but has all the requisite stridency of one), issued a statement bemoaning the fact that DeVos “brings NO education experience, but she does bring a disturbing record of attempting to dismantle public education.”
But the award for unmitigated delirium goes to panicking National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García: “Her efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers—which take away funding and local control from our public schools—to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense … [and] she has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education.”
Considering DeVos’s history as a champion for children, making kids the center point of her reform efforts, it is certainly understandable that teacher union honchos and their fellow travelers would fear and despise this woman. But their gripes are way over the top and are often absurd.
Regarding Eskelsen García’s claim that she is going to “de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education,” why would DeVos take on the experts? The NEA has already done a fabulous job of that. To buttress García’s swipe at vouchers , the NEA website claims: “Vouchers do not reduce public education costs.” That earns the union four Pinocchios. EdChoice’s Greg Forster looked at 28 studies, and 25 of them showed a positive impact on taxpayers while three showed no effect. Not one study showed that vouchers further burdened taxpayers.
Garcia is correct that much of DeVos’s philanthropy goes to promote school choice. DeVos believes that if parents think a private school is the best fit for their children, they should be able to send them there and the money should follow—as it does in Sweden, South Korea, Chile and many other countries, as well as in parts of the United States.
The teacher union leaders castigate her privatization efforts, but naturally they fail to explain the big picture. The public education establishment costs American taxpayers $670 billion a year and frequently turns out an inferior product. So DeVos and others like her want to implement choice, which invariably leads to competition, which is a good thing.
And despite words from frantic union leaders, choice does not lead to the end of public schools; it just means that they have to try harder to hold on to their customers. In fact, vouchers do indeed make public education better. According to Forster, of 33 studies examining the effects on public schools where choice is in play, 31 have shown an improvement in public schools and one study showed no effect. Only one revealed a negative effect on public school students. Most people would take 31-to-1 any day.
The NEA goes to bizarre lengths to make its case that DeVos is unqualified for the job. On its website the union states, “Betsy DeVos is not a good fit for a position overseeing the civil rights of all students,” claiming the DeVos family has “given more than $6.7 million to Focus on the Family, a group that supports conversion therapy.” This type of treatment is administered to people who are not comfortable with their same-sex attraction and fervently want to change; it is strictly voluntary. No one is rounding up homosexuals, putting them into re-education camps and forcing them to become hetero. And, by the way, the programs DeVos helped fund likely had nothing whatsoever to do with conversion therapy. This looks to be a guilt-by-association smear, nothing more.
What about the “no teaching experience” charge? This gets at best a “vapid” rating. True, DeVos has never taught. But as chairman of the American Federation of Children, she’s proven that she can navigate the political battlefield with the best of them, and that is a salient part of her new position. And speaking of battlefields, did any of the Badass bunch vote for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008 because the former had proven military experience? That’s certainly a plus if one wants to be commander-in-chief. The answer is obvious.
Another of DeVos’s alleged sins is that she is a Republican, and if that’s not bad enough, she is a rich Republican. Filthy rich. Even worse, she puts her money where her mouth is. Under her leadership, the American Federation of Children state-affiliated PACs spent money on 121 legislative races in 12 states this year, winning 89 percent of them. AFC’s Florida state affiliate won 20 of the 21 races in which it endorsed a candidate.
While the DeVos nomination has been well-received in the choice community, there are a few who have reservations. The Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick and Neal McCluskey worry that the Trump education team could try to nationalize school choice, which would be catastrophic. Choice should be a state and local issue, and with Republicans now controlling 33 governorships and both legislative chambers in 32 states, there is cause for optimism.
Speaking recently in Washington, D.C., former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said the country needs to redefine public education. He asserted that it should not be “focused on the system, but focusing on customizing the learning experience for each and every child.”
Bush is right. And DeVos would seem to be an excellent person to implement the redefinition. But in the meantime, the reactionaries among us—the teachers unions and their camp-followers—will bitterly cling to the old, tired and failing ways of the education Leviathan.