It was a close vote Tuesday, just 51 to 50, but Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate as the new secretary of education, and now we can get on with the rescue of our schools. The Obama administration was micromanaging them to death and Congress intervened, but there is far more to do and she will likely help do it.
To be someone nominated by President Donald Trump is to be embarrassed for life by critics, of course, and DeVos was not spared. The usual screeching told us she had all kinds of faults that disqualified her. Then the public, thinking our public schools were about to be burned to the earth while she danced around them, chipped in with thousands, maybe millions, of concerned emails, it was revealed by numerically confident senators of the Democratic persuasion.
The lambasting was largely hokum. DeVos has shortcomings, but mainly the critics did not like it that she is conservative, religious and rich, you finally figured out. The most pertinent data did not make its way into the minds of many who also managed to ignore the Obama record. So let’s set things straight, both on the past administration and DeVos herself.
She is an exceptional woman. She has devoted her life to giving poor children possibilities denied them by too many public schools flunking their duties. Her chief answer is charter schools and public vouchers for private schools. To that end, her family has given large amounts of money to support organizations fighting for these causes and she has served in leadership roles of major groups herself.
It’s said that charter schools don’t work and just take money from public schools. But they are themselves public schools that largely escape the hindrance of teachers unions and have innovative approaches that have often paid off greatly. Not all charter schools soar anymore than all public schools just limp along, but we have known for decades that too many of our schools are malfunctioning and we are finding that charter schools offer real remedies, especially for the poor and minorities.
DeVos played a large role in expanding charter schools in Michigan, and critics say the consequences have been awful. That’s false. The Wall Street Journal points out that charter school students in Detroit do significantly better on state tests than those at regular public schools and that most of the top schools in the city are charter schools while most of the worst are the regular schools. The paper also cites a Stanford study showing charter schools appear to perform better statewide.
President Barack Obama, surprise, surprise, is a charter school fan, but he shut down a voucher school program in Washington, D.C., even though the federal government itself had shown it was improving reading skills. On top of that, his administration has played a dictatorial role in public schools, from curriculum, to what bathrooms and locker rooms students can use, to how students are disciplined.
Here is a major intervention because the administration assumes racism if minority students are punished more than white students and won’t allow it. A consequence in some schools has been next to no discipline for some misbehaving students and utter chaos.
In 2015, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress acted to rein in the federal government in some areas, getting the education department out of Common Core, for instance, and allowing states to revise demoralizing, ineffective evaluations of teaching and school performance. It also updated a program helping to get charter schools started, seen as a crucial step in their expansion, quality enhancement and doing for students what they so desperately need.
National and international student tests indicate Obama’s program called Race to the Top was more nearly a slide in the other direction, but now we have DeVos, surely no miracle worker but a common sense crusader who just may work with states to accomplish sensible goals.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.