Why Progressives Should Oppose the Nomination of Betsy DeVos

The U.S. Senate will soon vote on the nomination of Betsy DeVos, and it appears the vote may be a 50-50 tie, in which case Vice President Pence will break the tie. We believe DeVos’s confirmation would be a mistake, and we urge senators to vote against it. She supports the idea that every student should be able to use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools, and we believe such broad voucher programs would be a huge mistake.

States have already begun to pass voucher programs available to almost every student. Louisiana’s program allows almost half of public school students to apply for vouchers. Nevada passed a bill allowing virtually every family access, but fortunately, the courts ruled it unconstitutional. The Arizona House passed a similar bill. With DeVos as Secretary of Education, there will be high-level national support for such legislation.

We understand that vouchers for poor, inner-city children expand the opportunities available to them. But when vouchers are available to all or almost all, they will undermine what little equal opportunity still exists in our public schools. Wealthy parents will add money to the voucher—because they love their children—and buy $30,000-per-year educations. Upper middle class parents will buy $20,000-a-year educations; middle class parents will buy $15,000-a-year educations; and poor and working class parents will be stuck in schools that accept the voucher as full payment.

What little mixing of income levels we have today will vanish, and with it any hope of equal opportunity. Children will also lose the chance to rub elbows with those from different social classes, races, and ethnic groups. That experience creates a more tolerant society, willing to embrace diversity—a huge asset in a racially and culturally diverse nation such as ours. Its absence creates the opposite.

We also believe that all schools receiving public funds should be held accountable for their performance. Louisiana and Indiana do this with vouchers, but most voucher programs include no accountability to the public. If students don’t learn to read and do math, nothing happens—the schools continue to collect the vouchers. Some parents might pull their children out of school, but if students don’t take standardized tests, how will their parents know? Experience with charter schools teaches that some parents will stick with a school if it is safe and nurturing even if reading and math scores are abysmal, so we cannot rely on parents to abandon all failing schools even if we do require testing.

Should more states enact broad voucher programs accessible to most students, we doubt there will be political support for accountability. Once every private school and almost every family is eligible for voucher money, the lobbying pressure against public accountability will be too strong.

Eli Broad, founder of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (a PPI funder), wrote a letter to all senators last week to “urge them to vote against Mrs. DeVos confirmation.” No one has been a fiercer advocate for education reform, including public charter schools, than Mr. Broad. We agree with him when he writes, “We must have a Secretary of Education who will vigorously defend the rights of all students to have safe, fair and equitable learning opportunities.”