Perhaps Mrs. DeVos’s most important qualification is that she has the courage of her convictions. Progressives are willing to brook billionaires who use their wealth to expand government or augment their political influence. Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker, whose family is a major Democratic patron, served as President Obama’s Commerce secretary. But a conservative who’s dedicated her private fortune to liberating poor kids trapped in lousy public schools? The horror!
The DeVoses have donated tens of millions of dollars to charity including a children’s hospital in Michigan and an international art competition in Grand Rapids. They’ve also given to Christian organizations, which the left cites as evidence of concealed bigotry. Yet education has been their main philanthropic cause.
During the 1990s, they patronized a private-school scholarship fund for low-income families and championed Michigan’s first charter school law. In 2000 they helped bankroll a voucher initiative, which was defeated by a union blitz. The DeVoses then turned to expanding charters, which have become Exhibit A in the progressive campaign against her. Unions claim Michigan charters are inferior to the state’s public schools and that 80% are run for profit.
These claims are spurious. Detroit charters are low performing—only 19% of students are proficient in English—but they’re better than the alternative. Charter students in Detroit on average score 60% more proficient on state tests than kids attending the city’s traditional public schools. Eighteen of the top 25 schools in Detroit are charters while 23 of the bottom 25 are traditional schools.
Two studies from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2013, 2015) found that students attending Michigan charters gained on average an additional two months of learning every year over their traditional school counterparts. Charter school students in Detroit gained three months.
Eighty-percent of Michigan charters utilize a private education service provider. Yet only about half are operated by a for-profit entity, and almost all of these are mom-and-pop businesses run by Michigan residents. While unions have fought to keep failing public schools open, Mrs. DeVos backed a 2009 law allowing the state to close public schools—charters included—that scored in the bottom 5% of the state for three consecutive years. Only seven of the 54 schools with two strikes in the past two years were charters.
The real reason unions fear Mrs. DeVos is that she’s a rare reformer who has defeated them politically. Prior to being tapped by Mr. Trump, she chaired the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has helped elect hundreds of legislators across the country who support private school choice. Last year AFC and its affiliate groups spent $5 million on elections compared to the teachers unions’ $138 million. Yet 108 of the 121 candidates AFC supported won their races.
And while we're at it, here's Reason Magazine:
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's pick for Secretary of Education, doesn't want to destroy public education. Public educators—and Title IX zealots—want to destroy Betsy DeVos. Passed in 1972, Title IX is the federal statute banning gender-based discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal funding. It effectively covers all public K-12 schools, many private elementary and secondary schools, and effectively all colleges, public or private.
Among DeVos's staunchest critics are so-called victims' rights groups. Know Your IX, an activist organization that works to diminish due process protections for students accused of sexual assault on university campuses, is tweeting under the hashtag #DearBetsy in hopes of pressuring her to continue the Education Department's misguided and legally suspect campaign against fairness and justice in university misconduct hearings.
"Ms. DeVos must fully explain whether she supports the radical view that it should be more difficult for campus sexual assault victims to receive justice," Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat and member of the committee that will vote on DeVos's confirmation, told Politico.
Title IX supporters portray their critics as radicals who believe that every rapist should go free and that every woman is a liar. Of course, this is not the case. The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights's (OCR) interpretation of Title IX has come under fire precisely because OCR has taken a radical position: It believes that university students accused of sexual misconduct should be left with very little means of proving their innocence before poorly trained bureaucrats. It is OCR's opinion—not Congress' or the Supreme Court's—that federal law requires universities to investigate wrongdoing in accordance with a definition of sexual harassment so broad that it threatens academic freedom and free speech while denying fundamental due process to the accused.
That's why civil liberties organizations including the American Association of University Professors and PEN America have expressed serious concerns about OCR's handling of Title IX under President Obama. These are not radical organizations, and they consist mostly of liberal thinkers who want to protect free speech and due process for all.
All that said, it's unclear whether victims' advocates have anything to worry about—DeVos's opinion on Title IX is not widely known. She has met with Sen. James Lankford, a Republican and major critic of OCR, to discuss the subject, but that's about it.
Devos is a donor to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and this fact has activists particularly worried:
The donations are "a red flag," said Lisa Maatz, the top policy adviser at the American Association of University Women, which advocates for strict enforcement of Title IX, the federal law that governs sex discrimination, harassment and sexual assault on college campuses. "In the absence of an actual record … I think these kinds of donations take on even greater importance, because we have to rely on her contributions to inform us on particular issues."
FIRE is primarily a free speech organization, and DeVos might have donated $10,000 to the group for reasons other than a desire to eviscerate Title IX. But even if DeVos shares FIRE's attitude toward Title IX (and I hope that she does), this would not make her a radical about the issue of campus sexual assault. As FIRE explains:
The basic protections for which FIRE argues—the right to the active participation of counsel; the right to see the evidence in one's case and to meaningfully question witnesses; and the right to an impartial tribunal, among others—benefit all parties and do not impede the pursuit of justice. Outside of the campus context, nobody would argue that reducing due process protections, including the burden of proof, is necessary to secure a just outcome.
Public university students who are accused of misconduct deserve a fair hearing and a chance to defend themselves: This is the idea that Title IX loyalists deem radical. If Betsy DeVos wanted to take a second look at OCR's directives, this would not make her an extremist. It would put her in the company of countless civil liberties groups that believe OCR is currently operating outside the law.
But the crusade to portray DeVos as a dangerous ideologue is mulit-faceted. Critics have not been content to hound her for possibly thinking that OCR has overstepped. They also accuse her of wanting to destroy the public education system entirely. Sensing that an education secretary who supports school choice reform is a threat to their political power, teachers unions and their allies are relentlessly insisting that DeVos is some kind of radical anarcho-capitalist or religious fanatic when it comes to private schools.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, had this to say: "In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America. Every American should be concerned that she would impose her reckless and extreme ideology on the nation."
Of course, there's nothing extreme or reckless about DeVos's support for school choice reforms. School choice is broadly popular, well-liked by fair-minded policy experts, and draws support from Democrats as well as Republicans. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a rising leader in the Democratic Party, was a supporter of school choice, at least until recently. He formerly served with DeVos on the board of the Alliance for School Choice, in fact. Here's what Booker had to say about school choice, according to Breitbart News:
I cannot ever stand up and stand against a parent having options because I benefited from my parents having options. And when people tell me they're against school choice, whether it's the Opportunity Scholarship Act or charter schools, I look at them and say, "As soon as you're telling me you're willing to send your kid to a failing school in my city or in Camden or Trenton, then I'll be with you."
Now that it's politically inconvenient for Booker to say anything that would perturb teachers unions—huge power brokers in the Democratic Party—Booker has changed his tune. He claims to have "serious concerns" about DeVos.
It's not just the Democratic Party stumping for the teachers unions. The New York Times, ever the enemy of a well-educated populace, accused DeVos of "damaging" the fabric of public education in her home state of Michigan, where she spent considerable money promoting charter schools:
She has poured money into charter schools advocacy, winning legislative changes that have reduced oversight and accountability. About 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are operated by for-profit companies, far higher than anywhere else. She has also argued for shutting down Detroit public schools, with the system turned over to charters or taxpayer money given out as vouchers for private schools. In that city, charter schools often perform no better than traditional schools, and sometimes worse.
That Times editorial relies on reporting from the Times' Kate Zernike, who claims that DeVos is a "believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse" and "pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation."
DeVos did nothing of the sort, as National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru explains:
You might think, then, that DeVos got legislation enacted that, well, reduced oversight of charter schools. The linked article, although biased against DeVos, makes no such claim. Rather, it shows that DeVos intervened to force the modification of legislation about charter schools. She opposed the creation of a commission that would have given traditional public schools a say in which charter-school networks could expand and which charter schools could continue to operate. (More on that dispute here and here.) The legislation that was eventually enacted omitted that provision and instead "allow[ed] the state to close the schools at the bottom of existing state rankings." There was, in other words, no reduction in oversight and accountability.
The Times is also waging war on established facts about charter schools. Studies consistently show that not all charters succeed, but providing kids with more education options leads to better outcomes in many cases. The Times editorial states that charter schools in Detroit "often perform no better than public schools, and sometimes worse." That's a curious misreading of the data, though, according to The Cato Institute's Jason Bedrick:
To claim, as the NYT does, that Detroit "charter schools often perform no better than traditional schools, and sometimes worse" based on these figures is a highly distorted way of presenting the data. It's equally true to say "Detroit charter schools almost always perform as well or better than traditional schools."
The Times has already proven that it has no interest in telling the truth about charter schools Just recently, a University of Michigan education professor was given room in the paper of record to argue that economists are generally skeptical of free market alternatives to public education. But the data she used to make this point was both out of date and misrepresented in the article. According to the most recent survey data, 44 percent of economists thought a voucher system would leave most students better off, 34 percent weren't sure, and just 5 percent thought not. Among economists with an opinion on the subject, the consensus overwhelmingly favored school choice.
That's because school choice is fundamentally un-radical. Education reformers don't want to defund public education and bring back child labor, they want to provide publicly funded alternatives to government-run schools that have failed their students, who are typically the poorest and least-privileged students.
In the policy battle over school choice, it's the teachers unions who are the radicals. They believe that they are entitled to an unbreakable monopoly on providing K-12 education, in defiance of a wealth of evidence suggesting that such a system is marred by bad incentives and serves only to protect public employees at the expense of kids and families. They smear any suggestion that competition could improve the system as an attempt to destroy public schools.
No, Betsy DeVos doesn't want to destroy public schools. Nor is there any reason to believe she wants to turn rapists loose on college campuses. Those who say otherwise are the real extremists.