Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Yesterday, Alyson Klein, pointed out that Betsy DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education,
would be the first person to head the department in its more than 35-year history who hasn't either attended public schools or sent her own children to them. . . . And DeVos, a school choice and voucher advocate, sent each of her own children to private schools as well, Truscott said. . . . "She believes all parents should have access to the same choices her children had," said Matt Frendewey, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization that DeVos chaired until recently. . . . She'd also be one of only a few secretaries entering the job without experience teaching in a K-12 school, or college; running a university, school system or state education agency, or overseeing public education as a governor, or governor's education aide.
As a counter, some have pointed out that President Obama is primarily a product of private schools and has sent his daughters to private schools. From my perspective, this counter does not help DeVos much. First, Obama's two Secretary of Education appointment did have significant experience in public schools, which shaped their views tremendously. Second, there are plenty of critiques of Obama's education policy to go around. Obama's first term may have fractured support for traditional public schools more than any before, although I do not believe that was necessarily the intent.
Regardless, DeVos vision for education and her general operating principle of expanding choice are private market ideas. These ideas, if not properly tailored to public values, are antithetical to public education itself. As I argue here, these private ideas undermine the very justification for public education itself if pursued to their logical conclusions. Public education is not a private commodity and it serves ends well beyond the interests of individual parents or students. Public education, of course, would be of little good if it did not also produce significant benefits for individuals, but it also produces benefits for overall communities, states, and societies. Hence, we all pay taxes and all have a voice in the ends and values it should pursue. If that balance shifts too far to individuals, it ceases to be public education and worthy of the same level of public support. It begins to look more like housing, transportation, and other aspects of society. In these areas, government support and regulation is more limited. Public policy supporting them comes from a confluence of interests between the public and private, not from a public interest per se.
DeVos' ideas threaten to move us in this direction. Her lack of public school experience may, moreover, lead her to discount the distinction between private and public education, not out of malevolence but ignorance or naivete. Because private choice has worked for her and those who can afford to carry its burdens, she may incorrectly assume that it will work just as well for those who are poorly positioned to carry its burdens. Then again, maybe she is right and it is my own experience in public schools that breeds my skepticism. I do, however, know one thing. The educational opportunities that I received in public school and a few key decisions that made later educational success possible for me were not made by me or by my parents. They were made by a few public school teachers who believed I could make something better of myself. They never told me or my parents this. They simply and quietly put me in an advanced placement class that gave me a shot and asked me to make the most of it. In fact, on the first day of class, I raised my hand and said "I don't think I am supposed to be in here." In this and several other ways, I credit public school for entirely altering the course of my life. Due to my experience, I have to believe this is the ethos of public schools, when they are properly supported and structured.
I admit that I know little of most private schools. I do, however, place significant stock in Chris and Sarah Lubenski's nationwide study that found when comparing apples to apples, public schools actually outperform private schools. This is not to deny the high average SAT scores in many private schools, but to recognize those high averages are a result of the high concentration of demographically advantaged students who attend those schools, not something special the private school is doing. Students with those demographics do just as well in public schools. They are just not as heavily concentrated there.