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December 17th, 2017

Insight

Betsy DeVos is a fighter and a winner

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Dec. 13, 2016

Betsy DeVos is a fighter and a winner

Long before there was a Department of Education, with all its rules and regs and general rigmarole, there was an institution that combined all those functions and did it with a devotion no government agency could match. It was and still is called the American family, and the incoming secretary of education believes in giving it free rein over where and how it chooses to educate its kids.

It's not that Betsy DeVos is opposed to public education. On the contrary, she just aims to make it accountable by giving it freedom of choice -- instead of arbitrarily assigning kids to pre-designated schools, as if they were pegs to be fitted into holes. Even if those are failing schools and should have been shut down long ago like any other tried-and-failed enterprise.

That's the public's money these schools are wasting and our kids' lives that are being ruined generation after generation. For instead of judging kids' performance by the test scores they're achieving on a uniform, nationally comparable scale, the country has been stuck with a one-size-fits-all system. And that not very systematical system works on the basis of seniority, connections and other irrelevancies that have nothing to do with achieving real quality. For it's still who you know, not what you know. Not since old England's rotten boroughs has so corrupt a tradition been passed on from generation to unfortunate generation.

Or, as Betsy DeVos told an interviewer in 2013: "What we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the ZIP code of their family's home. We think of the educational choice movement as involving many parts: vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, home schooling and charter schools." Whatever works, she's all for it.

So reach for the sky and forget about teachers' unions' contracts full of clauses and sub-clauses, sections and sub-sections, all of which are just a cover for make-work. American pragmatism remains, well, pragmatic. And effective as ever. Much like Sovmedicine or Sovscience, make-work is an inferior imitation of the real thing, and nobody understood as much as the hapless subjects of the late and unlamented Soviet empire.

Anybody who's ever had the time and courage to look over the classroom teachers' calcified union rules will know what is meant by bureaucratic bungling poorly disguised as quality education. You might as well judge a shoemaker not by how well his product fits but whether it comes in the same size, style and other unchanging categories year after year with no variations at all. Think of the spirit of American pragmatism, and also European didacticism. One works, the other doesn't. It's as simple as that no matter how much our bureaucrats try to confuse the issue.

Betsy DeVos never accepted the status forever quo but fought back, first in now-Republican Michigan and soon enough across the country. The idea that teachers should not be judged by how well their students do but by how well those same teachers conform to union rules is lunacy codified. And endlessly repeated. To do the same thing over and over again but expect different results is, to put it concisely, madness. Not since Ronald Reagan's era have prospects for a new beginning in American education seemed so bright.

Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and before that of George W. Bush's administration, recalls Ms. DeVos as "one of the first people in ed-reform to understand that we weren't going to beat the teachers' unions with op-eds and policy papers" that no one bothered to read or take seriously. Instead of collaborating with the unions, she "pushed the private school-choice movement to invest in serious political giving much earlier than the mainstream reform groups did, and, so far, with far greater success." More power to her.

In this year's election cycle, Betsy DeVos' well-named American Federation for Children invested in 121 races for school-related candidates or issues, and won close to 9 out of 10 of those electoral contests, or 89 percent of them. The lady not only fights back but wins. And if she's no favorite of the vested interests, the voters seem all for her. And why not? These are their kids whose future is at stake -- and it's worth fighting for. And winning.

Our current president has invested endless time and effort, not to mention public funds, to seeing to it that bad schools stay bad, but, what th' heck, the voters' will be damned. In dramatic and welcome contrast, Betsy DeVos -- soon to be Secretary DeVos if all goes well -- should be not just Donald Trump's secretary of education but the people's and taxpayers'. It's now likely that freedom of choice for families with school kids is now to become national policy, and not a year too soon. Those states that would like to expand freedom of choice for poor families can proceed with a national administration for instead of against them. How 'bout that? Hell's bells, hooray and Hallelujah!

It's time to celebrate, however long this happy interlude lasts. Who knows, it may be just the beginning of a bright new era in American education instead of the end of one. Keep the good thought and work to make it a new and better reality.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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