The Question Isn’t Do You Support Betsy DeVos, It’s Whether You Support School Choice


This really is the question. From Nick Gillespie:

With the day-long attempt by Democrats to “hold the floor” of the Senate to delay and disrupt the planned confirmation for the next secretary of education mostly in the rearview mirror, it now seems likely that President Trump’s controversial nominee, Betsy DeVos will squeak by on a 50-50 vote (Vice President Mike Pence, who presides over the Senate, will get to cast the deciding vote after two GOP senators said they will vote no).

There are two basic charges against DeVos and one is more serious than the other.

The less-serious, though mostly accurate one, is that she is plainly inexperienced. Like Trump entering the Oval Office, she has never overseen a public office or department, much less than one with nearly 5,000 employees. The Department of Education, founded only in 1979, is the smallest of all cabinet agencies in terms of personnel and budget (“just” $73 billion in 2016). This is to say it’s a minor cabinet office that was so unnecessary the coutry somehow got by without one until the waning years of the Jimmy Carter presidency (in 1980, Ronald Reagan said he would abolish it if he won; instead he just massively increased its budget). DeVos is a billionaire through marriage, to Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway fortune, and while she invests in a wide range of more or less interesting businesses (including Neurocore, which is trying to use biofeedback to cure depression and other ailments), she doesn’t rise to the level of, say, Carly Fiorina in terms of business chops. Similarly, she has never worked at or run a school or district, leaving her devoid of direct experience with education other than as a student and a parent (which isn’t nothing, exactly, but still not much).

So that first point is taken: She is inexperienced in running the sort of shop she’s about to take over. But then again, if she’s a competent administrator, that’s really what the job demandsAs education analystssuch as University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene and Reason Foundation’s Lisa Snell have told me, the education secretary has relatively little to do, as most federal funds are pre-committed through funding formulas that are difficult to monkey with very much. What the secretary can do is set a broad agenda and a tone. And that, not her lack of credentials, is why Democratic senators tried to “hold the floor” against her. DeVos has been very involved in Republican politics at the national and state levels, where she chaired the Michigan Republican Party and has supported all sorts of school-choice plans.

Given that, Senate Democrats and teachers unions are dead-set against her. The DeVos vote isn’t ultimately about whether or not a Detroit billionaire runs a program that accounts for only 10 percent of K-12 spending around the country (the federal government’s influence is magnified by the conditions and rules it attaches to schools that receive any federal money). It’s about DeVos’s outspoken support for both the general idea of publicly financed school choice and specific plans.

I’m sure that most of the Senate Democrats opposing Betsy DeVos think they are opposing an inexperienced billionaire whose secret dream is to loot public school coffers for…what, exactly? Some sort of bizarre, right-wing agenda, I suppose. DeVos’ brother didn’t start the company called Blackwater, so maybe her dedication to giving poor kids more options than they would otherwise have is really a way of helping her bro staff his mercenary forces?

Or maybe it’s just a more simple misunderstanding, one rooted in special-interest politics. The Democrats are closely allied with teachers unions, who threatened by any and all changes to the educational status quo. So of course they oppose Betsy DeVos and they will use any club on the ground to beat down her chances. But to the extent that DeVos—and Trump, too, who has been outspoken on the need for more school choice—are in favor of giving more students and more parents more choices when it comes educating their kids, they are on the side of the angels. A recent poll found that 68 percent of Americans favor expanding school choice, including 55 percent of self-described Democrats, 75 percent among Latinos, 75 percent among millennials, and 72 percent among blacks. Contemporary politics may not allow partisans to admit that (or even see it), but for those of us who are neither pro-Trump across the board or always anti-Democratic Party, the conversation surrounding the DeVos nomination is everything that’s wrong with Washington.

2 thoughts on “The Question Isn’t Do You Support Betsy DeVos, It’s Whether You Support School Choice”

  1. Scott Dredge

    If so-called ‘school-choice’ was the primary goal whereby kids in lower income families were provided an opportunity to attend any school of their choice, then this would be an easier sell. Instead, union busting is the top priority.

    1. Nah. The unions are already in decline, and charters have demonstrated that you don’t need unions to provide a superior education.

      This is about choice, especially for poor families in failing schools. The wealthy can put their kids anywhere. The poor cannot.

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