With the day-long attempt by Democrats to "hold the floor" of the Senate to delay and disrupt the planned confirmation for the next secretary of education mostly in the rearview mirror, it now seems likely that President Trump's controversial nominee, Betsy DeVos, will squeak by on a 50-50 vote. (Vice President Mike Pence, who presides over the Senate, will get to cast the deciding vote after two GOP senators said they will vote no.)
There are two basic charges against DeVos, and one is more serious than the other.
The less serious, though mostly accurate, one is that she is plainly inexperienced. Like Trump entering the Oval Office, she has never overseen a public office or department, much less than one with nearly 5,000 employees. The Department of Education, founded only in 1979, is the smallest of all cabinet agencies in terms of personnel and budget ("just" $73 billion in 2016). This is to say it's a minor cabinet office that was so unnecessary the coutry somehow got by without one until the waning years of the Jimmy Carter presidency (in 1980, Ronald Reagan said he would abolish it if he won; instead he just massively increased its budget). DeVos is a billionaire through marriage, to Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway fortune, and while she invests in a wide range of more or less interesting businesses (including Neurocore, which is trying to use biofeedback to cure depression and other ailments), she doesn't rise to the level of, say, Carly Fiorina in terms of business chops. Similarly, she has never worked at or run a school or district, leaving her devoid of direct experience with education other than as a student and a parent (which isn't nothing, exactly, but still not much).
So that first point is taken: She is inexperienced in running the sort of shop she's about to take over. But then again, if she's a competent administrator, that's really what the job demands. As education analysts such as University of Arkansas' Jay P. Greene and Reason Foundation's Lisa Snell have told me, the education secretary has relatively little to do, as most federal funds are pre-committed through funding formulas that are difficult to monkey with very much. What the secretary can do is set a broad agenda and a tone. And that, not her lack of credentials, is why Democratic senators tried to "hold the floor" against her. DeVos has been very involved in Republican politics at the national and state levels, where she chaired the Michigan Republican Party and has supported all sorts of school-choice plans.
Given that, Senate Democrats and teachers unions are dead-set against her. The DeVos vote isn't ultimately about whether or not a Detroit billionaire runs a program that accounts for only 10 percent of K-12 spending around the country. (The federal government's influence is magnified by the conditions and rules it attaches to schools that receive any federal money.) It's about DeVos's outspoken support for both the general idea of publicly financed school choice and specific plans. Here, for instance, is Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, tweeting his disapproval:
Making it loud & clear outside the U.S. Capitol today: #NoOnDeVos.
Privatizing public edu. will not give every child the chance to succeed pic.twitter.com/ddTnmz0Hhn
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) February 6, 2017
Wyden is one of the most reputable people in the Senate—or in Washington politics altogether. Yet he is wrong here, and on multiple counts. The first is that DeVos or Trump is somehow going to "privatize" public education. From a libertarian perspective, that may or may not be a good idea (I know I like the concept of separating the state from education very much; how do you raise truly independent thinkers otherwise?), but nothing like that is on the table. If you argue that "privatization" of public education happens when, say, K-12 students get taxpayer-financed money to go to private schools, your outrage would be better directed to the college-level Pell, student loan, and other financial aid programs that spend $130 billion a year, much of it going to private schools with religious affiliations.
Beyond improperly invoking privatization, Wyden's critique somehow presumes that not privatizing public education—that is, maintaining the status quo—will in fact "give every child the chance to succeed." The fact is that when you look at the long-term assessments of K-12 education, graduating seniors are doing no better now than when the government started collecting data in the early 1970s (at the same time, American kids are scoring lower than they used to in international comparisons).
None of that might matter if, say, we were also spending the same amount of money per pupil that we were in 1973. But of course that's not the case. In terms of total expenditures measured in constant dollars, we are spending about more than twice as much per pupil now as we were in the early 1970s ($6,253 vs. $13,142). And there's no question that "chances to succeed" are distributed unequally throughout the public school system, with better odds closely tracking the children of wealthier, more-educated parents who attend schools that are more responsive to student needs.
To the extent that lower odds of succeeding are concentrated in poorer, urban districts, the very best fix is to introduce all sorts of programs that give students and parents more choices (and let's be clear: Publicly funded charter schools and voucher programs come with oversight, not least of which is that parents can take their kids and the tuition dollars elsewhere; try doing that when you can only attend a school based on your street address). As Arkansas' Greene has written, it's true that on average charter schools have a similar academic-performance profile to public schools. But once you start doing apples-to-apples comparisons to students attending charters and public schools (randomized-control trials or RCTs), something very clear presents itself:
Students in urban areas do significantly better in school if they attend a charter schools than if they attend a traditional public school. These academic benefits of urban charter schools are quite large. In Boston, a team of researchers from MIT, Harvard, Duke, and the University of Michigan, conducted a RCT and found: "The charter school effects reported here are therefore large enough to reduce the black-white reading gap in middle school by two-thirds."
A RCT of charter schools in New York City by a Stanford researcher found an even larger effect: "On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the 'Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap' in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English."
The same Stanford researcher conducted an RCT of charter schools in Chicago and found: "students in charter schools outperformed a comparable group of lotteried-out students who remained in regular Chicago public schools by 5 to 6 percentile points in math and about 5 percentile points in reading…. To put the gains in perspective, it may help to know that 5 to 6 percentile points is just under half of the gap between the average disadvantaged, minority student in Chicago public schools and the average middle-income, nonminority student in a suburban district."
And the last RCT was a national study conducted by researchers at Mathematica for the US Department of Education. It found significant gains for disadvantaged students in charter schools but the opposite for wealthy suburban students in charter schools. They could not determine why the benefits of charters were found only in urban, disadvantaged settings, but their findings are consistent with the three other RCTs that found significant achievement gains for charter students in Boston, Chicago, and New York City.
I'm sure that most of the Senate Democrats opposing Betsy DeVos think they are opposing an inexperienced billionaire whose secret dream is to loot public school coffers for…what, exactly? Some sort of bizarre right-wing agenda, I suppose. DeVos' brother did start the company called Blackwater, so maybe her dedication to giving poor kids more options than they would otherwise have is really a way of helping her bro staff his mercenary forces?
Or maybe it's just a more simple misunderstanding, one rooted in special-interest politics. The Democrats are closely allied with teachers unions, who threatened by any and all changes to the educational status quo. So of course they oppose Betsy DeVos and they will use any club on the ground to beat down her chances. But to the extent that DeVos—and Trump, too, who has been outspoken on the need for more school choice—are in favor of giving more students and more parents more choices when it comes educating their kids, they are on the side of the angels. A recent poll found that 68 percent of Americans favor expanding school choice, including 55 percent of self-described Democrats, 75 percent among Latinos, 75 percent among millennials, and 72 percent among blacks. Contemporary politics may not allow partisans to admit that (or even see it), but for those of us who are neither pro-Trump across the board or always anti-Democratic Party, the conversation surrounding the DeVos nomination is everything that's wrong with Washington.
Related Video: A Libertarian Builds Low-Cost Schools for the Masses.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.