Betsy DeVos apparently doesn’t believe in the public school system, at least as it’s constituted now. That’s her prerogative — except for the fact that she’s going to be the new federal education czar if Donald Trump has his way.
A major Republican force in Michigan along with her husband, Dick, DeVos prefers the voucher system of educating America’s children, and that entails doing away with the separation of church and state as it applies to the financing of parochial and other religious schools, which would have access to taxpayer dollars.
Taken to its extreme, it could mean the slow death of public education. How we teach our children has become a major political football for Republicans and Democrats alike, with GOP conservatives dedicated to a free-market approach they seem obsessively convinced is the only way to save us from utter illiteracy. On the other side are the powerful teachers’ unions that argue that allowing parents to put their tax dollars into their schools of choice would ultimately leave the poorest of today’s school districts without funds to carry on.
According to her press clippings, DeVos was the key to killing a legislative proposal to save Detroit’s failing schools, even though the measure was supported by a broad coalition of city leaders. It would have, the New York Times said, provided oversight and set standards for how to close bad schools and open new ones.
The partisan, ideological fight at the heart of all this has been going on for years. Much of the contention, it seems to me, has been generated by the question of what to do about inner city schools, huge numbers of which nationally are the tail wagging the dog. The charter movement has been at the forefront of providing options for inner-city students, but in the last analysis many charter schools do no better for their students than the traditional public schools.
DeVos may or may not belong to the fringe that believes that if the American education system is to drag itself up from its second- to third-rate performance compared to its peers abroad, it has to recognize the need for an elitist approach. Regulation also is the bogeyman of charter schools. DeVos follows a line of thinking that any is too much.
In Detroit, the supporters of the failed reform legislation included union leaders despite the fact that both major unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have long opposed the voucher system on the belief that ultimately it skims the cream off the top of the public system, which ultimately threatens the public schools’ demise.
The unions have only themselves to blame by opposing much-needed reforms in the system until recently. They for too long refused to recognize deficient teachers or to accept merit pay and changes that were simple but disturbing to their own routines, like later starts, especially in high school. They are tardy in considering the idea of teaching boys and girls separately at least to a certain level.
Only relatively recently have advanced placement and international baccalaureate degrees become widespread outside the elite urban and suburban public schools. Attending a granddaughter’s high school graduation at a top high school, I was flabbergasted when all those in a class that totaled 600 students who had taken advanced courses were asked to rise. I quickly counted only 12 who hadn’t.
Unusual? Certainly. On the other hand, a grandniece who is attending a standard school in a Midwestern small town is also taking the advanced curriculum, and out of 1,400 students, she estimates there are several hundred who have subjected themselves to at least one or two such courses.
DeVos has spent much of her adult life trying as a philanthropist, lobbyist and political activist to persuade Americans that she has the answers to a system people have been saying was broken since the McGuffey Reader taught huge numbers of our earlier citizens just how to do that. Despite all the critics and naysayers, Americans somehow managed to turn their nation into the leading world power.
We will anxiously await DeVos’s efforts to solve among the thorniest issues in government without throwing the child out of the classroom or the baby out with the bathwater. Good luck!
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.