Democrats Should Be Heartened by Betsy DeVos

Unless something unexpected happens, tomorrow the United States Senate will vote on Betsy DeVos to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. And if you are a Democrat sweating through nightmares over what a Trump administration will do to education, you should be pretty comfy with what DeVos has said she’d like to see happen under her watch. As she stated repeatedly in her confirmation hearing, she would not use federal power—and certainly not secretarial power—to impose anything, including school choice, on unwilling states and districts.

But isn’t the vote expected to be as close as last night’s Super Bowl at the end of regulation, with all Dems voting against DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence delivering the final, overtime vote for her? Yup.

You see, over the decades, Democrats, with copious help from Republicans, have tried to make the U.S. Department of Education what it was not originally intended to be, and what with absolute certainty it cannot constitutionally be: a national school board. This vision was exposed in a comment by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, when she warned all who were suffering through the festival of misinformation and grandstanding that was DeVos’s confirmation hearing, that if approved DeVos would “oversee the education of all of our kids.”

This did not elicit the manufactured giddiness that met DeVos’s suggestion that a school with a grizzly fence might have a gun, and that such decisions should be left to states and communities who know their needs better than Washington. But Murray really ought to know that the Constitution and several laws give the feds no authority to “oversee” American education. Moreover, she had only about a year earlier voted for a law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—intended to cage the education secretary after the Obama administration had employed the position to illegally micromanage American education.

Sen. Murray was, though, soon outdone in her hyperbole. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took his rightful position in the front of the overstatement pack, declaring that DeVos “would single-handedly decimate our public education system if she were confirmed.”

How, exactly, would she do that?

Some have argued that the apocalyptic scenario Schumer invoked was inconceivable because Washington supplies less than 10 percent all K-12 funding. That’s a dubious conclusion: Washington has called lots of shots with that level of funding because while it may look small in percentage terms, try being the state representative who says “I voted to turn down $500 million federal dollars—your tax dollars, dear constituents—so we could keep control.” $500 million looks like a lot of money, which is why, though some threatened, no state ever just abandoned No Child Left Behind.

What Dems appear to fear most is school choice, in particular private choice that enables people to attend truly independent schools that make their own decisions on everything from staffing to curricula. But here’s why the decimation accusation is nonsensical. First, DeVos said that she would not attempt to expand choice unilaterally, but through Congress, where laws are supposed to be made. Suppose, though, somehow the Trump administration on its own was able to make good on its promise to furnish $20 billion for choice, and it was all directed to private rather than charter or traditional public schools? Divide $20 billion by the roughly 50 million kids in public elementary and secondary schools and you get a voucher of $400 per student. Not nothing, but far from enough to move many kids to private schools.

Of course, giving students real choice—but not through Washington—is what we should want, and that includes for children with disabilities. On that front, the attack on DeVos has been that she somehow did not know about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But there was no meaningful indication of that. DeVos said that governmental decisions about students with disabilities are better made at state and local levels, and the IDEA does not disagree: it only applies when federal dollars are involved. More important, choice, such as through Florida’s McKay scholarship program, empowers families to meaningfully advocate for themselves by giving them control over education funds, rather than forcing them into bureaucratic and legal battles that favor the well-to-do. And it does not make sense to subject to IDEA’s rules any private school a family might choose. Having to attract and keep business is the very real, immediate accountability that such a school faces, which may be why McKay is so darn popular with families who use it.

If Democrats fear what a Trump administration might try in education, they ought to be encouraged by Betsy DeVos, who made one thing clear in her confirmation hearing: she does not think she should be calling the shots. But the Dems may fear Washington losing power even more than Trump, though they tremble at the thought of chickens coming home to roost.