School Choice

Hey Progressives: You Can Fight DeVos, but You Can't Stop School Choice

Ignoring this populist movement does not help the left with families.


Betsy DeVos
Ron Sachs/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

It's telling that a lot of criticism of Betsy DeVos as Donald Trump's choice to head the Department of Education are about things like the fact that she didn't send her children to public schools and that she's not terribly familiar with the vast federal legal bureaucracy overseeing public education.

These are critiques that come also entirely from those who are embedded within the entrenched public education system and who have a stake in maintaining and expanding the status quo. Some senators seem aghast at the idea that DeVos was unfamiliar with all sorts of federal laws about how local schools are required to behave in order to receive federal funding.

But this just puts DeVos on the same footing as everybody outside the education system who have to interact with it and feel little control. While there are indeed parents who are familiar with these federal regulations because they have kids with special needs, this approach on DeVos feels very much like an attempt to keep the Department of Education under the control of insiders.

In reality, many, many parents want to make the same choices for their children as DeVos did, and it has nothing to do with them being rich or overly Christian. School unions and the politicians they bankroll may be able to stop DeVos' nomination, but they can't stop the growth of school choice and what it means, because parents love it.

And we've got the numbers to show it. The Reason Foundation's report on school choice and privatization for 2016 shows yet another major increase in the number of families sending their kids into charter school programs. Charter school enrollment increased by 250,000 students during the 2015-16 school year and 400 new charter schools opened. It's a 9 percent increase over the previous year. There are close to 3 million students getting educations from charter schools.

What DeVos wants is the same was what many parents want, completely independent of political affiliations. Deep in the heart of the bluest of blue cities like New York and Los Angeles, charter schools thrive with the extremely loud, committed support of parents in the face of opposition of public school officials who are allegedly supposed to serve these same consumers.

It's remarkable how much opposition to the growth of charter schools absolutely ignores the parents' support and embrace of them (other than trying to mislead the public that access is confined to wealthy surburbanites with the right connections). I've had people connected to the public education tweet at me or respond to me that charter schools aren't truly "public" because they lack the accountability of open school board meetings. We've all seen the words "for-profit" to be used as a bludgeon to suggest corrupt intent. All those billions of dollars changing hands suddenly become clean when they're passed along to the right people, as in those currently in control of the education system.

But school choice actually has the ultimate form of oversight—parents can yank their kids out if they're not happy. By all means, let's talk about test scores and whether they're better or worse or the same. By all means, go over charter school finances with a fine-tooth comb. Heck, you can even try to deliberately mislead people about whether economists support market choices in education. But when parents show up at school board meetings begging for their charter schools to remain open, you're a fool to pretend that fighting this movement is about protecting anybody but the interests of entrenched educators and administrators.

School choice is a populist movement that is heavily supported by the families the educational system is supposed to be serving. Those Democrats who are going after DeVos need to keep in mind one of the big reasons why Hillary Clinton lost: Voters stayed home. And many who voted didn't even select a candidate for president. To choose unions over parents in urban environments ignores what voters want. Many state- and district-level politicians can get away with this because unions are so locally influential. But on a federal level, attempting to stop the growth of school choice is a doomed effort that will turn many parents off—even Democratic ones. I can't imagine how telling parents they should not have control over where their kids get educations pays off in the polls.

Next week will be National School Choice Week, and expect a lot of coverage here at Reason. It's an area where libertarians and conservatives often find themselves working alongside urban Democrats as supporters. Senators like Elizabeth Warren and Tim Kaine ignore this at their peril. They're absolutely not representing the views of poor minorities by opposing choice.