Guest Opinion: DeVos must disrupt public education

The Orange County Register
Feb. 8
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One of the most consequential departments in the federal government is now run by one of the most debated members of President Trump’s Cabinet.

In a tie vote broken by Vice President Mike Pence, longtime influential Republican Betsy DeVos was confirmed as America’s secretary of Education.

America’s education system is broken and in need of a sharp change in course or, better yet, significant disruption. And Betsy DeVos, untethered by special interests or the education establishment, is best positioned to deliver.

Bettering America’s education system starts with the acknowledgement of a few principles: First, student comes first; second, top down, one-size-fits-all models for education do not work; third, no special interests — especially unions — should hold special influence on the direction of public education; fourth, good teachers should be rewarded; fifth, the current status of public education in the United States disproportionately hurts poor children and minority kids; and finally, our education system is outdated and in dire need of modernization.

The Department of Education was created by then-president Jimmy Carter to fulfill a campaign promise to the country’s largest labor union, the National Education Association. The DOE was intended to help parents make effective schooling choices, not to dictate procedures and outcomes. “Primary responsibility for education should rest with those states, localities, and private institutions that have made our nation’s educational system the best in the world,” Carter wrote in his signing statement. Since then, however, the DOE has largely drifted into the orbit of predominantly partisan Democrats who dominate the teachers unions — groups still powerful enough to demand and receive protection from party officials at the state and federal level.

Meanwhile, public education partisanship has radicalized apace. As identity politics and critical theory have spread from the universities downward into high schools and beyond, the party line in education has grown more progressive but increasingly illiberal. The result is a militant bureaucratic approach, using schools to push revolutionary cultural and political change. Although not yet ubiquitous and not always effective, the strategy and its consequences show just how badly the DOE has departed from its original purpose.

Blowback, including DeVos’s confirmation, was inevitable. Yet the teachers unions’ slide toward radicalism has put them in a tough spot that disadvantages America too. Unable to moderate or reverse what’s increasingly perceived as a policy of smug indoctrination, they and their fellow Democrats have had to mobilize against DeVos with hysterically apocalyptic talking points.

Nevertheless, for Republicans and other school choice advocates, there is no denying that DeVos, like the Trump administration, does not currently enjoy a huge advantage in public support. As tempting as it may be for reform-minded officials to strike while the iron is hot and liberate American schooling from its institutionalized revolutionaries, the first steps toward legitimate change will have to be taken thoughtfully, deliberately and selectively. Although the contempt and panic whipped up by DeVos opponents makes calm and considered reform seem unlikely, the reality is different. Outside the fog of controversy, most Americans are ready for a freer, more diverse and more fruitful array of education resources for their children. Let’s hope they get it.

Much as Apple positively disrupted the mobile technology space or Uber disrupted the taxi cartels or Amazon disrupted, well, everything, America’s public education system needs disruption. Let’s all root for DeVos to deliver it.