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Betsy DeVos, Saboteur or Savior?

Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s Secretary of Education, has been accused of wanting to destroy public education. On the surface of it, the charge might appear to have some credibility. She is, after all, an extremely wealthy woman who went to private schools herself and sent her children to private schools. And of course she was chosen by Trump, who is not considered to be much of a supporter of publically funded programs in general, except, of course, for the military. Add to that the fact that, according to a lot of her detractors, she has never set foot in a public school, and she does look like a strange choice for Secretary of Education.

But let’s start with that last accusation. It is simply not true. DeVos tutored children in a public school as a volunteer. Not because she had to. Not for money. Because, whatever her critics may say, she cares deeply about providing children with a good education. Including children in public schools. She actually wants to improve public education, not destroy it. That is also why she has been a major advocate of charter schools, which are public schools designed to provide education superior to that provided by the traditional variety.

It significant that many people in the public education establishment do not like charter schools, they do not fit the traditional model. They strive for innovation, not uniformity. And, horror of horrors, many of them, though publicly funded, are actually run by for-profit organizations. Many Americans, despite the eagerness with which they grab up countless products manufactured and sold for profit, are convinced that vital products like education and health care must never be provided at a profit.

Probably the greatest educational advance of this century, benefitting children and adults alike, is the internet. Would it really be better if had it been developed by a government agency rather than profiteers like Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg?

But DeVos’ biggest affront to the public education establishment is her advocacy of school choice, by which the government would fund education by providing vouchers that parents could use to send their children to schools of their own choice. Is that idea inimical to public education? The answer may depend on how one defines public education. If it can only mean education in schools owned and operated by the government, then allowing parents to use any other type of schools might be seen as inappropriate. But if its true purpose is to provide children with quality education, then perhaps letting people choose the best schools available would better serve that purpose than granting government-run schools a monopoly on publicly funded education.

It is important to notice that both of the initiatives DeVos has long supported, charter schools and vouchers, depend on tax-payer support. She is not some super-rich woman who can afford to send her own children to the best schools that money can buy and doesn’t care about anyone else’s children. She supports public funding for education, she just thinks the money should be spent on providing better educations than our children are presently receiving. Although some public schools (primarily in affluent neighborhoods) are quite good, huge numbers of them, especially in inner cities, are failing our children abysmally. In fact, many families in such neighborhoods have chosen to put their children in Catholic schools at their own expense and despite not belonging to that religion. And in spite of some good public schools, by various measures our children lag behind those of many nations, especially in the evermore important fields of science and mathematics. Businesses throughout the country are unable to find qualified employees for many jobs. The jobs are there. Adequately educated potential employees are not.

The introduction of widely available public education in the nineteenth century benefitted this country in many ways. But the problem is that we are still using essentially the same model and it is no longer working. Too many people in the public education system have a vested interest in trying to keep that system hobbling along instead of attempting real innovations that might bring American education into the twenty-first century with a chance of meeting the very different needs our country has now. I do not know whether Betsy DeVos can begin the process of saving American education. There are many people who will make it difficult for her. Strangely, some of them have actually criticized her for caring more about helping individual students than about the “system.” Well, I certainly hope someone does! The system clearly needs radical change, and at least she is prepared to try. I wish her well.

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