With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education, it appears that education armageddon has arrived. At least, that’s how Democrats and teachers unions are portraying it.
At the end of their 24-hour talkathon, during which Senate Democrats decried the DeVos nomination as “an insult to schoolchildren and their families, to teachers and principals and communities fighting to improve their public schools all across this country,” not a single Democrat voted to confirm DeVos. Meanwhile, the president of the American Federation of Teachers called the confirmation a “sad day for children.”
What has caused DeVos to draw the ire of virtually every Democrat and teachers union in the country? As a Wall Street Journal editorial succinctly puts it, DeVos “has committed the unpardonable sin of devoting much of her fortune to helping poor kids escape failing public schools.”
DeVos committed the grave offense of advocating for and donating to the school choice movement. She became chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, an organization that believes “parents should have a range of high-quality options, including great public schools, public charter schools and access to private schools through school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs and Education Savings Accounts.”
Although Democrats found this support for school choice to be “insulting to schoolchildren and their families,” DeVos fully embraced the policy as AFC chairman, and testified as much during her confirmation hearings.
In their defense, the Democrats and their allies would likely point to the supposedly “disastrous” educational results such reforms have had. For example, the New York Times explained that DeVos “faces a big challenge in explaining the damage she’s done to public education in her home state [Michigan].” The Times refers to an op-ed column written by Tulane Prof. Doug Harris, in which he claims that the Detroit charter schools system is the “the biggest school reform disaster in the country.”
Yet the data do not support these claims. In fact, a 2013 Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study comparing Detroit charter schools to local Detroit district schools, the same study cited by Prof. Harris, concluded:
“ ...[T]he typical student in Michigan charter schools gains more learning in a year than his [traditional public school (TPS)] counterparts, amounting to about two months of additional gains in reading and math. These positive patterns are even more pronounced in Detroit, where historically student academic performance has been poor. These outcomes are consistent with the result that charter schools have significantly better results than TPS for minority students who are in poverty.”
Although these school choice reforms show promise, implementing them would have the effect of breaking up the public education monopoly. As a result, the teacher unions vigorously lobby against these reforms, as they fundamentally threaten their power. The National Education Association, for example, gave more than $28 million in the 2016 election cycle. Moreover, almost all of this money was used to help get Democrats elected.
This lobbying power is likely the reason for Democrats’ breathtaking hypocrisy over the DeVos nomination. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who refused to shake Betsy DeVos’ hand after her confirmation hearing, wrote in her book “Two Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke,” about the problems caused by a lack of school choice. Fellow Democratic Sen. Corey Booker, meanwhile, actually gave a speech at the American Federation for Children, where DeVos was chairwoman, in which he passionately defended both school choice and charter schools. Yet neither Booker nor Warren, any more than the rest of their Democratic colleagues, voted for DeVos, a surprising fact considering 68 percent of Americans and 55 percent of Democrats support expanding school choice.
It is only a “sad day” for teachers unions, not children. The opposition to DeVos was never about the “children,” but only about petty special interest politics. Luckily for our nation’s educational system, Republicans were able to hold the line against a Democratic party fully under the thumb of the teachers unions.
Conner Kline, of Wayzata, is a recent graduate from Southern Methodist University with majors in history and political science.