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Betsy's Choice


I'm going to say something nice about Betsy DeVos.

Duck! Smash!

That was the sound of my liberal friends and allies throwing weapons at me.

Unlike her colleague EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, whose entire existence as cabinet secretary is designed to destroy the very thing he is sworn to protect, Secretary DeVos does not seem to be motivated by malice. In that vein, she is perhaps more like her benighted colleague Ben Carson--unqualified for the job and in over his/her head. Her seeming ignorance of segregation and racism earlier this year was certainly troubling. Her family support for a choice system in Michigan that leaves schools unaccountable is a disservice to children and the taxpayers. Her policy of abdicating protection for student borrowers at for-profit colleges was strikingly misguided. And while her team is trying to thread the needle around campus rape issues, some of them are dismissing the abuse and harassment that victims face.

But at times, it does appear that DeVos is trying.

She recently kicked off the school year at Woods Learning Center in Wyoming (give her credit; I haven’t heard about Ben Carson making visits to low income housing or Rex Tillerson visiting diplomatic missions). There, she made a speech which included the following statements:

For far too many kids, this year's first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year's first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!

That means your parent's parent's parents!

Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the "average" student.

They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell.

It's a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures.

People may not want to hear this, but Secretary DeVos is right, and I don’t recall previous Education Secretaries saying quite the same thing. These thoughts are consistent with what my professors of education were saying more than 15 years ago. Our educational model was designed for an earlier era, when families worked predominantly in agriculture and manufacturing, and higher-level thinking skills were less necessary or even appreciated. The larger question, however, is what to do to address the deficiency in our system. What does it mean to educate our students for the 21st century, a question we have largely evaded?

In her remarks, Secretary DeVos was not too specific, as she was speaking to a group that included students. She did, however, mention American greatness and highlighted models around the country that are working. I think I know where certain educational “reformers” will go with this—promoting the notion of school choice, and saying that the answer lies in more charters, liberalized vouchers, and dismantling of school systems. These advocates state that competition, private initiative and consumer choice will unleash better schools, because these are the values that made America great. But when competition and the like are invoked, somebody somewhere stands to make a good deal of money.

It is true that in many ways the system is sclerotic and as a member of a union of educators, I often cringe to note that it advocates for members first, even over the needs of children. But the arguments for unfettered school choice are based on faulty assumptions, most basically that what made America great was choice, competition, and a free market.

What are the things in American history that truly made this country successful? I’ve made a top ten list of America’s greatest accomplishments, in no particular order:

  1. Crafting a sustainable form of government that, despite flaws, has lasted for almost 230 years to date

  2. Pulling together our resources, initiative, courage, and talent to defeat fascism in World War II

  3. Creating a national park system, to protect our national resources and provide a source of recreation for millions of people

  4. Supporting the age of invention, during which time great innovators such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell developed tools that changed the world

  5. Building powerful and innovative businesses such as steel, automobiles, and finance that provided wealth and opportunity for millions of Americans

  6. Creating a more healthy, safe, and productive childhood by instituting a universal school system and eliminating child labor

  7. Despite continued and serious setbacks, enhancing the civil rights for people of color and electing an African-American president

  8. Overcoming the Great Depression to save our political and economic system and create opportunities and safety nets for vulnerable citizens

  9. Incorporating and absorbing generations of immigrants into our society to create a new and distinctly American culture

  10. Developing new forms of characteristically American art forms, such as jazz and rock and roll, which greatly influenced world music and culture

From this list, the third and fourth items are most directly related to competition, but even still, without taxation, regulation, infrastructure, and law enforcement, would our businesses have thrived to such a great extent? And if you take the list as a whole, it becomes clear that American success has been built upon numerous factors beyond pure capitalism, including creativity, innovation, sacrifice, and collaboration.

In the context of our educational system, promoting “choice” is at best a partial answer, because it still begs the question of what effective education looks like. Moreover, when choices are made, some children will be left behind; that is the nature of choice. Either we allow choice to benefit some children at the expense of others, or we make it possible for every child to have full choice. But if we do that, how do we ensure that all the schools are of quality? That brings us back to the first question I asked—What do we mean by good education?

When you hear the words “choice”, “competition”, and “free market”, be very suspicious. Choice is meant for some, not for all. Competition has winners and losers. And a free market allows someone to reap a fortune. But if Secretary DeVos wants to lead us in a new conversation on what education in the future really means, I will be happy to sing her praises.

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