The DeVos Flavor of School Choice

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Many of the conversations about Betsy DeVos are based on the perception that she is an advocate for market driven school choice. I think it might be worthwhile to more closely examine the specific “flavor” of school choice that DeVos seems to advocate for. One clue is in her testimony in her Senate hearing. In it, she used the word “parent” or “parents” 22 times (based on the C-SPAN transcript). The talking point she repeated in various forms went like this: “…empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them…” Notice she doesn’t say empower parents and students or empower families. Notice she doesn’t say choose the best school, or the highest performing school, but the “right school.”

Her comments must be considered within context of what is known of DeVos’ conservative Christian background and beliefs. In that context, it would appear that her flavor of school choice is greatly aligned with the conservative Christian “parent’s rights” movement. Here is a manifesto of sorts on the topic from the Family Research Council, one of the many conservative Christian groups that the DeVos family has supported financially.

In a nutshell, this view is that parents are the proper authority for guiding the education of their children. There is great concern that “control over how children learn has moved away from parents to other adults: administrators in big school districts, state and federal education bureaucrats, legislators, judges, professors in teacher colleges, teacher’s union officials, and members of other interest groups.”

This classic rhetorical trick to dehumanize and blobify the “enemy.” No, the adults that have the greatest impact over how students learn are the teachers, principals, and other educators at the individual school the child attends—dedicated professionals who make sacrifices both large and small in the name of other people’s children. It seems that discussion of parent’s rights falls curiously quiet on the specifics of exactly how religious and other private schools facilitate more parental engagement in decision making.

The Family Research Council paper is simply a more polished version of internet comment sections that decry all teachers as Godless, communist, liberal indoctrinators. The irony is that one, we know a large percentage of US teachers were actually Trump voters that no one can possibly define as “liberal” and two, teachers across the country wistfully lament for greater involvement from parents in the education of the children they teach.

Politics and religion aside, on a strictly human level, anyone who has ever worked with children, observed friends and family as they raise children, or raised children themselves, knows that in fact parents can at times be the worst judges of what is best for a child. Frankly, many of us know this firsthand simply because we were raised by parents ourselves. The decision-making of parents can be clouded in so many ways.

One of the reasons why “market based” school choice is not a path to school improvement is that an overwhelmingly large body of peer reviewed, scholarly research shows that parents do not make school decisions based on measures of academic quality (just a few examples from just 10 minutes of ERIC searching: here, here, here, here, and here). Study after study shows us that parents consider many other factors as far more important than academic quality. Specifically, considerations of race and the demographic composition of the student body have consistently been shown to play an outsized role.

Of course our society has long upheld the idea that parents have rather broad authority in raising their own children. Parents have a prerogative to pass on the cultural and religious beliefs they value. Children are still humans, however, and have many of the same human, civil, and constitutional rights as adults. The courts have not always provided clear guidance as to where one set of rights ends and the other begins. That often does leave teachers and schools to negotiate those spaces, something that none of the parties involved relishes.

Of course, this flavor of school choice is not really about choice but about practicality. Every family in the country can choose to homeschool their children or send them to private schools. The Home School Legal Defense Association only describes five states as having “high” regulation for home schooling and 29 with little or no regulation. Supreme Court precedent and every single state affirms the right of parents to send their child to a private school. About half the states were even given a C+ or better for having what private school advocates call “reasonable regulations” .

So this issue is not choice, but affordability and practicality. Of course, choice advocates like to imagine that tax dollars should be able to “follow” their children. This makes as much sense as only paying your tax dollars to those institutions you personally use. Can I get a voucher on all the tax money that went to National Parks and public museums to support my choice to vacation at Disney World instead? (Of course, my facetious example seems a lot less ridiculous in the current reality of a Trump presidency).

The flavor of school choice that DeVos would likely support is not one solely of capitalism, markets, or school reform, and certainly not based on concerns of equity. Much like Trump and the rest of his entourage, DeVos’ words are dog-whistled support for those that view teachers and public schools as an existential threat and unredeemable enemy and hope to undermine them with the help of whatever allies they can find. For public school advocates, the stakes are indeed high, and the battle could be long.

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