Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ nomination and approval certainly riled up teachers unions across the country, causing panic that their power over education policy may finally be challenged.
DeVos has made clear that advocating for school choice will be a central part of how she approaches her job, something that evidently unnerves the education establishment.
“DeVos shows an antipathy for public schools; a full-throttled embrace of private, for-profit alternatives and a lack of basic understanding of what children need to succeed in school,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, upon DeVos’ confirmation. Similarly, the National Education Association took the occasion to call for “resistance” to the “Trump-DeVos agenda.”
What precisely constitutes this agenda isn’t clear, but most of the rhetoric flung around involves fear-mongering that public education is suddenly at risk, that corporate profiteers will be let loose to exploit students and that poor and minority students are at risk of not getting the sort of education they need.
The panicked rhetoric seems to stem from DeVos’ long history of advocacy for charter schools and school vouchers. In her home state of Michigan, DeVos and her husband have championed charter schools — to positive effect.
According to studies conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Michigan charter school students, on average, “make larger learning gains in both reading and mathematics” than Michigan students in traditional public schools. Similar findings were identified in Detroit charter schools, with African American, Hispanic, low-income and special education students making larger gains in both reading and mathematics than students in traditional schools.
With respect to vouchers, the experience of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program has demonstrated that voucher programs can yield positive educational outcomes, including higher graduation rates.
Notably, DeVos has repeatedly stressed that education policy is better made at the state and local level, which, if she sticks to her word, should allay any rational concern that what we’ll see is expansive federal overreach into education, which certainly should be avoided.
Of course, the hyperpoliticized teachers unions can’t resist appealing to manufactured fear over DeVos to advance their own agenda. The California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, for example, are asking Californians to take a pledge in support of “the public education all California’s students deserve.” According to the unions, attaining public education that students deserve requires one to support sanctuary cities and the belief that “social justice for all begins with a quality, free public education,” whatever that means.
Are California students receiving a quality public education today? Less than half of California students met statewide reading and math standards last year, with just 48 percent meeting or exceeding reading standards and only 37 percent doing the same in mathematics. Minority and low-income students fare even worse under a status quo that has seen consistent growth in school budgets, bond funding and teacher pension obligations, but abysmal educational outcomes.
Perhaps what threatens teachers unions the most is the prospect of a renewed focus on accountability, competition and choice in education. Parents want the best education for their students. Whether education is made available via traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools, what ultimately matters is whether students actually receive the best education they can get.
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