Betsy DeVos Has Saved Public Education

No one expected it. When Queen Betsy first took her position, her Dolores-Umbridge-style floundering was painful to watch and frightening for those of us who care about public education. Two years in, however, it is plain as day: DeVos’s sheer terribleness has forced a political realignment on the issue of charter schools. Charter schools used to be seen by both parties as the next great hope for public education. Now they are seen as a GOP stalking horse.

We’re used to it by now, but think back to DeVos’s shockingly inept interview on 60 Minutes in 2018. She evinced scant understanding or even interest in key educational issues. As Chris Cillizza wrote at the time,

DEVOS: Well, in places where there have been — where there is — a lot of choice that’s been introduced — Florida, for example, the — studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually — the results get better, as well.

STAHL: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.

DeVOS: Michi — Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.

STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?

DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall, I — I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.

STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.

DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this — the students are doing well and —

If I was a boxing referee, I would have stopped this exchange about halfway through. If you are the secretary of education, you have to know you are going to be asked about the effects of school choice — particularly in your home state. So, if you’re going to argue that school choice has made public schools better, you had had better find a whole hell of a lot better spin that “I don’t know.”

And here’s Colbert’s take:

DeVos’s theory is that if you take money away from public schools and give it to charter schools, that will somehow help the public schools. It’s a system called . . . Stupid.

Before the DeVos era, politicians and pundits of both major parties tended to embrace charter schools as our most promising school-reform idea. No longer. Democratic 2020 hopefuls are scrambling to distance themselves from charter schools. Those who have the closest ties to the charter movement, like Senator Cory Booker, have the most work to do. As The (charter-loving) Economist put it,

Mr Booker is trying to navigate these treacherous waters. His proposed education manifesto for 2020 is to increase funding for educating special-needs children and to pay teachers more. These proposals are fine. Yet Mr Booker is the only candidate with a serious educational achievement under his belt—and the essential ingredients of that turnaround are not what he is promising now. His campaign replies that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for education reform.

It’s not only about charter schools. Other market-y style education reforms have become similarly tainted with DeVosite. Teach For America, another reform plan long despised by progressives but embraced by both major parties, has come under increasing fire. California is considering ditching the program and cities such as Houston already have.

betsy devos dolores umbridge

All Hufflepuffed up.

In a way, it’s a shame. The smart answer when it comes to TFA, charter schools, or any other reform plan is always “It depends.” Some charter schools have offered great educations to low-income students. Some TFA teachers have done great jobs, and sacrificed a lot to do it.

Because of Queen Betsy’s Trumpish cloud, however, charter schools have reached Chernobyl-level toxicity for Democratic politicians. And that means the idea of charter schools will no longer carry the day as it has done for the past thirty years. In the long run, that’s good news for public education as a whole.

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