WASHINGTON, February 9, 2016 — In October of 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill that created the United States Department of Education (ED). The new department began operations on May 4, 1980.
It has been said that, prior to that date, children learned to write by scratching “help” in the grime on the factory windows where they worked.
According to its website, “The mission of the Department of Education is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”
According to the OECD, the ED has been wildly successful at all parts of its mission excluding only the promotion of student achievement, preparing students for global competitiveness and fostering educational excellence. The OECD—the club of the world’s developed nations—did not report data on equal access, but the ED has undoubtedly tackled that task with at least as much vigor and efficiency as it has the others in its brief.
Betsy DeVos, the newly confirmed secretary of education, helms an agency that last year had a budget of $68.1 billion and 4,400 employees. She does so with very little trust or support from America’s teachers, their unions, Senate Democrats, or the press.
On the basis of her confirmation testimony, that lack of trust may be deserved.
At one point, DeVos seemed unaware that the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was a federal law, telling Senator Tim Kaine that the decision to meet its requirements was best left to the states. She was vague in her exchange with Senator Elizabeth Warren on whether she would enforce the gainful employment rule, and evasive with Kaine on whether she’d hold public, private and charter schools that receive federal funds to the same accountability standards.
And then there were the grizzly bears.
DeVos doesn’t inspire confidence that she could manage a Dairy Queen, let alone the ED. But her critics don’t rest their objections just on her qualifications, but also on her views of the best way to educate children. She is not, in their opinion, a strong supporter of public schools.
That may be the biggest thing in her favor.
The OECD findings aren’t new. America’s public schools have performed badly for decades, and in some ways they’re doing better than they were. But if the role of the ED is to promote excellence, then it has failed. If DeVos is unqualified, the education secretaries who have preceded her have been highly qualified failures.
One reason the ED has performed badly is that its mission, in spite of the bullet points on its website, is unclear. That lack of mission clarity is reflected in our public schools. What do we want from them, and how will we measure it? What drives success in education?
The problems facing America’s public schools don’t begin in the ED, which has very little to do with actually funding schools or setting curricula. School failure has more to do with parents than with the ED. And failure is relative; there is evidence that schools perform better now than they did in the 1970s, and that the achievement gap between black and white students has shrunk.
But it’s the achievement gap between American and other OECD students that is the concern here.
DeVos’s critics often argue that the ED’s constituency is the public schools, not the children who attend them. They ask whether DeVos will be good for public schools without asking whether that will also be good for school children.
Demands that DeVos not waver in support for public schools provide little clarity about what that support entails. Does it mean more money? Americans spend more per person on healthcare than citizens of every other country in the OECD, to dubious benefit. America’s schools get more money per student than those in just about any other country in the OECD. High spending levels aren’t always a good thing, nor are they a gauge of quality or success.
Schools are about the children. What’s good for the school—is the school the administrators? the teachers? the teachers’ union? the school board?—isn’t necessarily good for the children. Only if we define the school as the children does “we’ve got to do what’s best for the schools” make any sense.
If America’s children aren’t as proficient in math, science, reading and geography as students in the top tier of the OECD, then our schools are failing. If our children are leaving school without a love of learning, our schools aren’t just failing; they are actively hurting our children.
DeVos may not be the person to make education better for anyone, but if public schools aren’t good for school children, then an education secretary who is bad for public schools is to be hoped for, not feared.
We should add the caveat, “as long as she’s good for the children.”
If our schools aren’t great, the blame doesn’t lie in Washington, but neither does the cure. The fight over Betsy DeVos is a distraction that leaves us with an exaggerated sense of the ED’s importance, and a diminished sense of local and parental responsibility for quality education. Conservatives have long understood that American greatness comes from the people, and so does the power to change things. If President Trump and his appointments remind liberals of that truth, then they are all for the good—even the unqualified ones.