There are many reasons why various advocates representing different constituencies support school choice policies. Some of them argue from a civil rights perspective, noting that parents with financial means are able to seek out school options for their children and propose that opening urban schools to parental choice gives those options to families in poverty. Others come at the question from a more laissez faire economic approach, believing that government control in any sector is less desirable than competition among various entities creating innovation. Still others are, undoubtedly, hucksters and profiteers who have seen the relatively new school choice sector as an easily exploited honey pot that is still too loosely regulated to catch fraud in the form of double dealing and self enrichment. There are compelling and data based reasons to question the first two arguments – and the third presents an obvious problem that even many choice advocates do not support – but there should be no doubt that deeply held and sincere beliefs animate many school choice advocates.
And then there is whatever the hell Betsy DeVos believes.
There is no doubt that Betsy DeVos believes in school choice, and her record is one of funneling large sums of her personal fortune to influence politicians to embrace competition among schools as educational policy. Further, DeVos’ record in Michigan demonstrates that she is unusually reluctant to subject school choice options to meaningful oversight. Now that she is in Washington, her general attitude towards choice as a goal in and of itself is evident on a national scale.
Secretary DeVos raised eyebrows at her confirmation hearing when she skirted the question of “equal accountability” for all schools as poised by Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia:
Her unwillingness to commit to “equal accountability” was surprising to people who agree that public funds come with public obligations and that those should be governed by principles of equality and equity. DeVos betrays no such commitment, preferring to let entities receiving public funds make their own decisions even if that means they are not held to the same levels of accountability. This was thrown into even more stark relief more recently when she indirectly signaled fourteen times that her Department of Education would not protect LGBTQ students and students with disabilities from discrimination under all circumstances. Asked about how her department would respond to voucher schools that refused to accommodate LGBTQ students and students with disabilities, she replied over and over again that “Any institution receiving federal funding is required to follow federal law.” The problem with that response, no matter how many times it was repeated, is that federal law is either silent (on LGBTQ students) or not fully consistent (on students with disabilities). Much like “accountability” versus “equal accountability” subtle differences matter, and Betsy DeVos’ inclination is defer to making more choices operable rather than to defer to making sure those choices are equitable and required to serve all students.
Secretary DeVos’ faith in choice is so firm that she has an alarming tendency to insert it into her remarks in various locations regardless of the appropriateness. In February remarks after meeting leaders of a group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs), Secretary DeVos could not help herself from framing them as “pioneers” of “schools choice.” While it is true that HBCUs arose because African Americans were systematically barred from educational opportunity, the “choice” they represented at their founding was the ONLY choice available to their students and to most of their faculty. Rather than properly noting the full force of America’s Apartheid Era and how it conspired to keep African Americans from full citizenship, DeVos said, that HBCUs are “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality.” That’s not praising HBCUs for their brave roll in trying to alleviate injustice; that’s hijacking their history.
While many choice advocates clearly believe in the power of competition in a marketplace, Betsy DeVos seems to assign that marketplace capabilities few akin to magic without recognizing any limitations. In remarks to a technology and innovation conference in May, Secretary DeVos lauded innovation in mobile technology and lamented why such forces have not been unleashed on education:
Think of it like your cell phone. AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile may all have great networks, but if you can’t get cell phone service in your living room, then your particular provider is failing you, and you should have the option to find a network that does work. Let’s be clear. This shouldn’t apply only to K-12 education — we need to innovate, reform, and iterate across the entire education spectrum. Higher education must constantly look for ways to update their models to best serve students as well.
DeVos, not unlike many other free market purists not contained to education reform, refuses to acknowledge some massive distinctions between innovation in mobile service and innovation in providing a public service like school. First, mobile service is a massively regulated sector of the economy and operates under a myriad of rules to protect consumers. In fact, most of the competition lauded by choice advocates of proof of the market’s power takes place within a regulatory framework, but DeVos’ advocacy record says she does not strongly believe in fettering a school marketplace with such rules. In DeVos’ “free” market ideal, schools locally make choices about who to accommodate and where to locate regardless of what the most vulnerable consumers need. Second, the ability to make a choice from a wide range of choices is integral to the competition she extols, and one of the reasons why we have anti-trust laws. The electromagnetic spectrum is certainly able to hold a number of choices in mobile service. Most of our nation’s public school districts would incur staggering travel costs for students to implement “choice” or would have to run a complex and inefficient system of schools too small to offer comprehensive programs. Finally, and this cannot be emphasized enough, the marketplace is not and never was designed to offer everyone equally good choices. One of the most powerful features of a free marketplace is the ability of customers to shop not merely among an array of choices that meet their needs, but also among an array of choices that fit their budget. A person can buy a luxury automobile, and economy car, or even a used car that only works 70% of the time but serves his needs (most of the time). The problem with applying that to public education is that nobody NEEDS the school equivalent of a 1986 Yugo. They need what everyone else needs – equal access to a free, sound, public education. I will happily admit that we currently are failing to provide that, but the answer to that challenge is not to be found in carving up our genuinely inadequate resources and spreading them without oversight into a maze of providers who are not equally accountable with the schools they compete with. This is not a recipe for providing all parents with a rich array of choices that are all of high quality, and the results in districts like Detroit, where DeVos’ favored policies have ruled for some time, speak loudly to that.
Even though DeVos is so ideological about market forces, she is far less ideological about making certain that traditional public schools can compete in that market. How else can anyone explain her support of the education budget proposal that is set to slash over $10 billion from needed after school programs, teacher training, and grants and loans for students because in her estimation the budget “returns” control to states and gives parents, you guessed it, choice? In that same hearing, DeVos avoided a question about a religious school in Indiana that gets voucher funds but will not admit children of same sex couples, saying only “The bottom line is we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children’s schooling and education decisions…Too many children today are trapped in schools that don’t work for them. We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.” It should be noted that this is a budget that even is getting side-eyed by school choice friendly venues. Campbell Brown’s reform advocacy site noted that the “winners” in the Trump education budget are school choice and….Secretary DeVos’ security detail, while losers include college students, special populations, technical education, and the Office for Civil Rights.
Secretary DeVos believes in school choice in, quite literally, the worst way. She ascribes competition and the free market with powers it does not have when it comes to creating change in a core democratic institution. She is hostile to oversight and equal accountability for the variety of privately run/publicly funded organizations she wants to see proliferate. She is indifferent to whether or not those organizations welcome all students who seek them out. She has no qualms about traditional public schools, along with the families that choose them, being entirely disadvantaged in her marketplace disruption. She is willing to frame literally anything, even schools created in response to Apartheid, as an example of “choice”. Not even the evidence of how badly awry her efforts in Michigan have gone can shake her. School choice advocates may arrive at their support by many means, but Betsy DeVos has elevated it to near religious status. She cannot be reasoned out of her positions largely because she never reasoned herself into them.