In one of his more surprising moves, president-elect Trump has nominated philanthropist Betsy DeVos to be education secretary. Of course, on the left, many are trying to outdo each other to see who can breathe the heaviest and sound the tocsin the loudest about potential menaces to the Republic, warning that DeVos is yet another Washington bomb thrower ready to smash the Beltway bureaucracy.
“The news came as a shock to the education world,” said Kristina Rizga at Mother Jones, “DeVos’s ideas for school reforms are even more radical than what Trump proposed on the campaign trail.”
Rizga adds that “education historian Diane Ravitch believes that—if confirmed by the Senate—DeVos will become the most radical, anti-public school education secretary since the Office of Education was established in 1867. ‘Never has anyone been appointed to lead in the past 150 years who was hostile to public education,’ Ravitch told Mother Jones.’”
(You know, I remember when Diane Ravitch wrote thoughtful, important books. But that was in the previous century, before they invented Twitter.)
If you want to know what DeVos believes, Philanthropy, to their credit, interviewed her in 2013 and her views seem reasonable and sensible. As a donor, she funds private-school scholarships and, outside of the nonprofit world, political campaigns to increase voucher programs. Far from being a radical, DeVos is a thoughtful, sensible donor.
Thankfully, there are sharp limits to what the Department of Education can do to change American education, given that our schools are still somewhat decentralized. But if she’s looking for new ideas, she ought to read Andy Smarick’s piece from the Weekly Standard on charter schools.
Smarick, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute says “though welfare reform is perhaps conservatism’s most visible domestic policy success of the last generation, charter schools may be more significant, and may have more ripple effects in the future.”
Until charter schools began to be created, public schools had a monopoly (or what educators call an “exclusive territory franchise”) on state-funded education. Reformers would call for a voucher or a tax credit, which led the education unions to take out the big guns and begin pounding the rebels. The reformers would invariably lose but they would feel better for the noble fight they fought. Then nothing would change.
The lesson charter-school advocates learned, and the reason why three million American children are currently attending charter schools, is that you can have choice in schools without shrinking the government. As Smarick notes, “chartering and vouchers are best thought of as similar species descended from different philosophical genuses,” just as yams and sweet potatoes are nutritious orange tubers that aren’t related to each other. Charter schools fit firmly into the “reinventing government” mantra of the 1990s, where the state “steered” activities but did not “row” them.
But what charter schools have done is get parents and teachers actively involved in managing schools. Teachers, for example, have historically—and understandably—wanted to remove the restraints placed on them by principals and central offices. But teachers who learn how to run schools, including managing cafeteria contracts and overseeing the janitors, can, if they want to, then use these skills to supervise private schools.
Parents also used to be actively involved in managing schools. But as I showed in Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds, they were pushed out of school management by 1910 by Progressives who thought themselves experts who neither needed nor desired parental advice, particularly if it came from recent immigrants.
The best charter schools stress active parental involvement. They therefore strengthen civil society by having parents as active participants in their children’s’ education.
Charter schools also advance federalism. For example, who should determine how the quality of a school is measured or what credentials teachers need to teach in a charter school? Should it be the state’s responsibility, a nonprofit accreditator, or some other private-sector overseer? Over time, different states have come up with different answers, which provide guidance to states that haven’t yet set up charters. “The right mix of state and civil-society authority,” Smarick notes, “is probably better revealed through experience than reason.”
Finally, Smarick contends that advocates of private school choice shouldn’t dismiss charters as a squishy compromise with the state. Right now there are 16 states that have vouchers, 17 with tuition tax credits, and five that have education savings accounts. Smarick persuasively argues that these choice programs would not have come into existence if charters hadn’t convinced parents, educators, and the public that choice should play an important part in education. In particular, the success of choice in inner-city Washington, D.C. and Detroit has paved the way for charters to become a routine part of elementary and secondary education.
Two other points are worth noting. From about 1910-1970, American educators believed in what the great education historian David Tyack called “the one best system.” Like other Progressives, these educators believed that they could “scientifically” determine the best way to govern schools, one in which teachers, parents, and the public were largely ignored by a rigid, inflexible hierarchy.
No one believes this now. Charters have ensured that diversity in education has become institutionalized, a movement that has benefited students, parents, and teachers and strengthened civil society.
But choice, while it improves schools, is not a panacea. I wrote this in 1992 and reprint it here because it is still true:
“School choice will not convince parents that education is worthwhile, tell students to do their homework, teach right and wrong, dissolve all red tape, or even ensure that students are as educated as their parents or grandparents.”
Devolving power away from central offices through charters and vouchers is productive. But just because parents are free to choose a school does not guarantee that their children will succeed in school or in life.
P.S. The philanthropy of the DeVos family is not just limited to education. The DeVos Family Foundation also funds ArtPrize, a giant art festival and competition held annually in Grand Rapids and overseen by Betsy DeVos’s son Rick DeVos. John J. Miller wrote about this festival in Philanthropy in 2011.
For more articles on school choice and philanthropy, read about AltSchool and Achievement First, two innovative but very different schools. You can also read about schools that cultivate resilience in children, or about the rising number of African American homeschoolers.
 The American Enterprise Institute has been a client since 1990, and I was a research contractor for AEI for six months in 2016. I do not currently have any contracts with AEI.