The Job of the Education Secretary Isn’t to Defend Public Schools. It’s to Help Kids Learn


This is only a part of an excellent article over at Vox

Consider the trends:

  • Since 2005, SAT reading scores have dropped by 14 points. A writing component was added to the SAT in 2006, and scores have dropped every year since then except for two years when they were flat. Math scores for 2015 were the lowest in 20 years. The expanding pool of test takers, a common explanation for the slide, doesn’t fully account for it.
  • On the ACT’s measure of “college readiness” in math, English, reading, and science, slightly more than one-third of test takers met the benchmarks in three subjects, while another one-third did not meet any(!) of the benchmarks. That means that one-third of high school seniors who aim to go to college are unlikely to earn a B in any of those subjects.
  • According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams (the “Nation’s Report Card,” administered by the Education Department’s National Center for Educational Statistics), only one-quarter of 12th-graders are proficient in civics, one-fifth in geography, just over one-third (37 percent) in reading, one-fifth (22 percent) in science, and one-eighth (12 percent) in US history. Only one-quarter of them reach proficiency in math.

These outcomes run against the rise in graduation rates as an indication of stronger student learning.

Per-pupil spending keeps rising, with dubious returns

At the same time, we have another discrepancy, outcomes versus public school funding. President Trump emphasized it in his inaugural speech when he mentioned “an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.Adjusted for inflation, the national average for per-pupil spending rose steadily until the 2008 financial crisis, going from $8,600 in 1991-’92, to $9,900 in 2000-’01, to $11,600 in 2009-’10. In 2014, in spite of the strong hit that government revenues took after the crisis, per-pupil spending is still at $11,009. (See Table 8 of this report.)

As the cost-benefit numbers continue to look bleak, the qualifications of a public school insider should mean less and less. And the more politicians and commentators insist that the first responsibility of the secretary of education is to represent and support public schools, the more we have an example of “capture” in government.

Capture takes place when an agency charged with monitoring an industry or profession ends up in the service of it. The agency or official starts to regard the object of evaluation as a constituency that must be supported. When the governor of a state gets too close to the public employee unions around negotiating time, he has stopped representing the people of his state and become a partisan of special interests. He has been captured.

When the opponents of Betsy DeVos hail public schools as the first beneficiary of the Department of Education, they do the same thing. They forget the civic principle of “by the people, for the people.” I saw the pressures to do so while working at the National Endowment for the Arts in the mid-2000s. Whoever leads that agency faces a powerful group of artists, museums, concert halls, after-school arts programs, and state arts agencies that clamor for more support and more speechmaking in the bully pulpit by the NEA chair.

There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. But the chair, while agreeing with their aims, must remind them that there is another group that comes first: the American people. The federal agency exists to support artists and arts institutions, but only insofar as their work benefits the citizens.

In the case of the Department of Education, the Cabinet secretary should not be primarily the representative of, or advocate for, public schools and all the people who work in them. His or her constituency is not teachers, superintendents, and the rest of the personnel. It is the students. He labors not, first, to ensure sufficient funding for facilities and research and curriculum and professional development. Those things count only as long as they improve the education of the young.

We ought to keep our minds open to promising educational alternatives

Traditional public schools are the main mechanism for educating young people, but we now have alternative models. Some of them are weak, but many of them are great successes with long waiting lists. Instead of focusing on public schools as the singular obligation of the secretary, let’s add to the list the kids at Harlem Success Academy, the youths who have profited from the voucher-based DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, homeschoolers who are increasingly favored by selective colleges, and teenagers who’ve stayed in school because of the flexibility of Florida Virtual School.

These alternatives to traditional public schooling should, of course, be held to the same standards. Indeed, one of the advantages of charter and for-profit schools has been that the failing ones don’t survive for very long. The system weeds them out. The secretary of education should support this quality control and be just as vigilant in monitoring progress with them as he is with the public schools. Indeed, as the alternative schooling movement spreads, one can imagine it attempting the same kind of capture that every other large industry aims for in its relations with the federal government.

If done with integrity, however, this diversification of primary and secondary education is clearly a threat to the privileged status of public schools. In objecting to Betsy DeVos on the grounds that she is insufficiently committed to the public schools above all other deliveries of education, her opponents are maintaining a narrow and disappointing status quo, whether they realize it or not.