Opinion

February 10, 2017 - Volume 37 Issue 2

Commentary

“Search for the truth is the noblest occupation of man; its publication is a duty.” - Anne Louise Germaine de Stael (1766-1817), a French-speaking Swiss author living in Paris and abroad who influenced literary tastes in Europe at the turn of the 19th century.

 


 

 

By Mark A. Sadd

Arne Duncan, the long-serving U.S. secretary of education who once ran Chicago’s low-performing public schools, sends his young children to an elite private school in the same city.

Duncan had authored the Obama administration’s signature School Improvement Grants program that spent $7 billion on the notion that exorbitance would save some of the nation’s most failing public schools.

The grant program not only didn’t work. It turned out to be a disaster on the scale of New Coke, the remake of Ghostbusters and the upper management of Yahoo!

Duncan’s former agency confessed last week that the program — the biggest experiment in U.S. public school history — had unconditionally failed. It turns out that dumping carloads of money into the worst schools had not improved them at all. Equally bad schools that received none of the grants performed just as well, or, really, just as badly.

The announcement was a ringing, stinging repudiation of 40 years of federal education policy that specialized mostly in profligacy. What possibly can be the logical next step? $10 billion? $50 billion?

The evidence is damning: Giving even more federal money to the same management in public schools is no longer the answer.

One of the virtues of federal education policy is that it isn’t necessary to have it at all because public schools are largely the domain of state and local governments. Changing the direction of federal education policy will not cause long-term damage.

In a refreshing turn, it appears that President Donald Trump wants to take federal education policy in a different direction. His apparent support for school choice would be a boost for creative destruction at the fringes of a public school infrastructure that sometimes is broken and unfixable.

Trump has tapped Betsy DeVos to lead the Education Department to do just that. DeVos is a Michigan billionaire who has spent her entire career advocating for school choice and, especially, charter schools in that state and elsewhere.

For many years, DeVos, with great conviction, has pushed against rigid vested interests in public education. She has devoted her life and much of her fortune to public charter schools.

In return for her fearless caring for poor and disadvantaged children, DeVos has earned the status of Public Enemy No. 1 of the powerful and self-indulgent national teachers unions that believe that charter schools are the work of the devil. The unions are pushing back with a vengeance against her nomination.

DeVos’ loudest critic is Randi Weingarten, the boss of the American Federation of Teachers. Weingarten loathes public charter schools and, thus, one of their most visible patrons, DeVos. Her biggest knock against public charter schools is that some of them are run by for-profit companies.

Another criticism is that DeVos is wealthy and charitable. Weingarten blames the billionaire for donating to start and run them in Michigan. (Weingarten’s union salary is $550,000. She is only a millionaire. How much she donates of her own money to failed public schools is unknown.)

Others criticize DeVos because she never attended a public school. But neither did President Barack Obama. Neither have millions of Americans who were educated at home or in private and parochial schools.

In the lead-up to her Senate confirmation vote, DeVos has become the target of ferocious personal attacks. The opponents of Trump see her nomination as a possible political victim for picking off from his remaining Cabinet nominees.

Sen. Joe Manchin says he isn’t sure whether he will vote to confirm her. His vote against her would be at no political risk to him. West Virginia is one of only a few states that have stubbornly refused to participate in the school choice revolution that is producing, in most instances, vast improvements in public education.

The evidence for school choice is mounting. Millions of parents in other states freely and happily choose public charter schools, private academies and parochial schools with the help of their own tax dollars over the traditional public schools that they believe do not well serve their children’s needs.

West Virginia’s failure to engage in school choice, including charters, will mean that federal investment in the school choice movement will pass over our state. It will be yet another opportunity for success that West Virginians will forgo while they see others forge ahead.

Oh, well.

Mark A. Sadd is a Charleston attorney and former Daily Mail business editor.

He can be reached at msadd@lgcr.com.

 


Editor’s Note: DeVos was confirmed by the Senate as the nation’s education secretary Feb. 7, but only with the help of a historic tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence after weeks of protests and two defections within her own party. According to congressional historians, It was the first time a vice president has been summoned to the Capitol to break a tie on a cabinet nomination.

Used by permission of the Charleston Gazette-Mail Daily Mail Editorial Page, Kelly Merritt, Daily Mail Editorial Page Editor.