Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick to be his Secretary of Education, is often described as a champion of school choice. Progressives should know that she defines “school choice” in ways that undermine public accountability and blur the crucial distinction between public and private education.
“We think of the educational choice movement as involving many parts: vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools,” DeVos said in 2013 interview.
DeVos grew up in Michigan, where she met her husband Dick DeVos, an heir to the Amway direct-sales fortune. Together they helped pass Michigan’s charter school law in 1993, which has failed to hold charter authorizers accountable for the quality of their schools. Michigan’s charters are some of the least regulated in the country, and about 80 percent are run by for-profit companies. If one authorizer denies a charter or tries to close a failing charter, the school often simply shops for a more laissez-faire authorizer. Hence failing charters are often allowed to stay open, which has helped create an estimated 30,000 empty seats in Detroit.
The DeVos’s own children attend private Christian schools. Betsy DeVos founded and serves as chairwoman of the American Federation of Children and its associated political arm. She has used this political platform to vigorously support candidates who endorse vouchers. The DeVos family has also made political donations to discourage lawmakers from increasing oversight on charter schools.
The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) helped to pioneer the charter school concept in the early 1990s. But it has always drawn a sharp distinction between charter schools, which are public, and vouchers, which allow students to attend private schools at public expense. The problem is, those private schools are not accountable to the taxpayers in any way. All too often, they aren’t very good schools. Even in states that do hold them accountable, like Louisiana, research has shown that students who participated in the voucher program experienced declines in achievement test scores of eight to 16 percentile points.
Another big problem with vouchers is that if we give them to poor children, eventually the middle class will want them, too. Already, several states have passed laws allowing the majority of families to access vouchers. (Fortunately, Nevada’s was found unconstitutional.) When this happens, any semblance of equal opportunity will fly out the window.
Let’s say the voucher is worth $10,000 per child. Poor and working class parents will send their kids to $10,000 schools. Middle class parents may send their kids to $15,000 schools, adding some of their own money to the voucher. More affluent parents will send their kids to $20,000 schools, $25,000 schools, and beyond. I’m not blaming them: We all love our children, and we want what’s best for them. But public policy should protect the common good as well as private goods. And public education, despite all its inequality, is perhaps the only place left in American society where we even make an effort to create equal opportunity. If we lose that, we lose something precious–and we kick the growing inequality undermining our society into high gear.
We should push for more integration of public schools by race and class, because research shows that it helps low-income students without harming higher-income students. Beyond that, in a multi-racial, multi-cultural nation, we need to promote experiences that help people rub elbows with those from different races and classes. That experience teaches people that underneath our skins we are all alike. It builds tolerance into our society. After the elections we’ve just experienced, it should be abundantly clear that we need more tolerance in America, not less.
Betsy DeVos’s goal is different — to radically diminish public oversight of public schools, and to steer more dollars into unaccountable private schools.
That’s not the kind of “school choice” progressives should support.