Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Education – The Selection of Betsy DeVos”
December 5, 2016
“The true customers of public schools – parents and children – have come to exercise less and less
influence over the schools, as the schools have become more and more centralized and bureaucratic.”
Milton Friedman (1912-2006)
“Newsweek” – Dec. 5, 1983
There is nothing more ferocious than a cornered animal. That description fits the leaders of the two major teachers’ unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Both lashed out when Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to take on what is perhaps the toughest and most important job in the new Administration – Secretary of the Department of Education. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the NEA, said: “By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities.” Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, was blunter: “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.” The irony is that those two have stood in the way of reform. It is time the status quo is challenged. A good education, next to family, is the most critical element in determining future success and happiness. For too long, unions have focused on teachers and administrators, not students and parents. This has been especially true in those districts most in need of help.
Both unions had a financial stake in the defeat of Mr. Trump. Based on data through October 28, the NEA had contributed $23.3 million to political causes in 2016, with 98% going to Democrats. The AFT had given $10.3 million, with 100% going to Democrats. Both have a stake in maintaining what is not working. Studies suggest that 40% of high school graduates are not prepared for college, and that 20% are not qualified to serve in the armed forces. Something is wrong. Albert Einstein once famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Throwing good money at bad schools, with no little or no choice for parents and students and little or no accountability on the part of teachers and administrators has not worked.
Betsy DeVos is the person chosen to breach those walls – walls that thus far have proven invincible. Her selection by Mr. Trump shows that he is serious about reform. She has been trashed by those who see her as a threat, not only the heads of the two unions who have the most to lose, but reporters as well. Valerie Strauss, an education reporter for The Washington Post used incendiary language in an article titled, Trump terrifies public school advocates with education secretary pick. She claimed that Ms. DeVos’s proposals would promote segregation, discriminate against students with severe disabilities and fight public oversight. The implication was that Mrs. DeVos would destroy public education. Reporters for The New York Times, Kate Zernike and Kevin Carey, were equally provocative. Neither reporter mentioned unions, nor did they see any value in competition, choice, or accountability when it comes to education and teachers.
Mrs. DeVos is a wealthy philanthropist and passionate advocate for choice in education. She is a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and is current chair of the American Federation for Children, an organization that focuses on school choice for children and their parents. She serves on the boards of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (a group founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush), the Alliance for School Choice, the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, and Kids Hope USA among other philanthropic organizations. When it comes to public K-12 education her mantra has been choice: vouchers, tax credits, charters, magnet schools and homeschooling. The goal is to provide consumers with the best educational options possible for public school students. It has been an uphill fight, and not all programs have worked, including a lack of oversight in voucher programs in Michigan schools. But the point is that the current system, which works for the wealthy and those fortunate to live in upscale communities, has not worked well for those in poverty-stricken rural areas and in America’s inner cities.
For well over a hundred years, unions have been instrumental in making life better for working Americans, including teachers. But power corrupts, and the heads of these two unions wield enormous power. Too much time has been spent building and consolidating power. In their focus on making life better for teachers and administrators (and themselves), they have forsaken students and their parents.
Competitive markets work better than federal mandates offering no alternatives, including schools. For the wealthy, this is no big deal. They have options: they can send their children to private schools, or they can move to a district with better public schools. But for those stuck in rural or urban poverty there is no choice. Donald Trump was right when he said, “School choice is the civil rights issue of our time.”
I believe all Americans want the same thing, and that includes what is best for our children. We differ in how to achieve those goals. Progressives want to maintain the current system – to pour more money into needy districts. Conservatives believe in competition – to offer a choice to students and parents, and to hold teachers and administrators accountable. The current system has clearly failed those in inner cities and in poverty-stricken rural America. Despite allegations by Randi Weingarten, Lily Garcia and reporters for mainstream media, Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos do want better public schools. To imply they do not is disingenuous and destructive to debate.
Betsy DeVos has a monumental task in addressing the needs of students and parents in broken public schools that have failed so many of our children. Powerful teachers’ unions will fight her every inch of the way. But I suspect she is up to the task. She is a fierce competitor. She understands the message in Edgar Albert Guest’s poem, “It Couldn’t Be Done:”
“There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophecy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That ‘cannot be done; and you’ll do it.”
This is a problem that has taken a long time to reach a boiling point. Powerful forces are allayed against Mrs. DeVos – those who have a stake in maintaining the status quo, especially teachers’ unions and employees of the bloated Department of Education. Milton Friedman, quoted in the rubric at the top of this essay, wrote about this problem over thirty years ago. Since then, about 150 million children have attended our public schools. Yet, in spite of the fact that we spend more dollars per pupil than most OECD countries, our students are going backwards when scored on international tests. This is a crisis for the most disadvantaged in our society. The world is shrinking and becoming more competitive. If we want all our youths to reach their potential, we must give them a better start. The selection of Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education is a good beginning. She’ll tackle this problem, and she’ll do it.