President Donald Trump is arguably the most controversial and polarizing figure in politics today. Take Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. She was the first Cabinet-level appointee in U.S. history to require the Vice President to cast a tie-breaking vote during the Senate confirmation. Lost in the mud-slinging confirmation process was a fact-based discussion of Republican ideas about education, particularly compared to those of Democrats.
It is important to understand that DeVos’ predecessors at the Department of Education were not able to markedly improve the state of public school education in America. President Obama’s hallmark education policy was a substantial increase in funding to the School Improvement Grants program — to the tune of $7 billion dollars. The School Improvements Grants program distributed money to underperforming schools and incentivized individual schools to overhaul administrators and teaching methods. This program fell far short of its established goals. According to the Washington Post, “just a tiny fraction of schools chose the most dramatic measures” available under the School Improvement Grants program to revamp schools.
There are a variety of factors that contributed to the School Improvement Grants’ failure under Obama. The main reason is that the public education system is in the stranglehold of teachers’ unions—which prefer to advance their self-serving agenda than see real upgrades to the educational experiences of students. These unions relentlessly push back against any reform that holds teachers accountable for their teaching. DeVos promises to pursue the best educational practices irrespective of their impact on the teachers’ unions.
DeVos will likely push for school choice policies on a national level. Such policies allow for students, particularly those living in neighborhoods with underperforming schools, to be able to select the school they wish to attend—whether these are charter schools or private schools that accept government vouchers. These policies give parents the ability to send their children to schools they believe are the best fit. This is anathema to the teachers’ unions, which fiercely fight attempts to have educators bear responsibility for their performance while promoting an educational monopoly without competition.
Charter schools boast strikingly successful results across the country. In particular, the Success Academy Charter Schools—a non-unionized network of 34 public charter schools in New York City—have had a remarkable impact on the local communities they serve. According to the New York Times, students at Success Schools, who are mostly poor, outscore students attending schools in wealthy suburbs. In addition, more than double the percentage of students at Success schools pass state reading and math exams than those at other New York City public schools. The Knowledge is Power Program (K.I.P.P.) network of charter schools exhibits similar success. Although 87 percent of students at K.I.P.P. are eligible for federally subsidized school meals, 45 percent of K.I.P.P. students attend college and earn a Bachelor’s degree. This is above the national average for all students (34 percent), and five times the rate of students from low-income communities. DeVos has demonstrated over the course of her career that she will support these charter school programs.
Voucher programs will also be a vital component of DeVos’ education platform. As part of the overall school choice concept, school vouchers allow the government to pay for students to attend the private school of their choosing. Introducing free market competition into schooling creates a more results-driven system that makes better use of federal dollars. Stanford University professor Caroline Hoxby, who has conducted extensive research on school choice programs, found that students in areas with more school choice programs consistently score higher on standardized exams at a lower cost than areas without these programs. In another study conducted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, researchers found that Florida public schools located near voucher-accepting private schools made significantly more improvements than public schools which were not competing against voucher-accepting private schools. This effect arises from public schools operating in voucher regions devoting more energy into keeping up with private schools in order to retain students. DeVos has been a stalwart proponent of these school choice programs, and will likely try to expand them nationwide.
The stakes are far too high for Washington bureaucrats to engage in frivolous politicking at the expense of America’s children—especially those belonging to minority and impoverished groups. The current system of squandering taxpayer dollars while failing to tangibly improve student outcomes must be remedied. Whether or not DeVos is the perfect Secretary of Education is less important than understanding how the conservative policies that she will promote will benefit America’s youth.