Americans say they care about public education, but they haven’t the slightest idea how public education works in this country. That’s the only way to explain the overblown opposition to Betsy DeVos’s confirmation this week as U.S. secretary of education.
Judging from my Facebook and Twitter feeds, an awful lot of people seem to think DeVos will be “in charge of our nation’s children.” Others bemoaned that DeVos now will be “the head of all our educators” and “running the largest school system in the world.”
Happily, DeVos will be none of those things. She merely will be head of the U.S. Department of Education, one of the least powerful Cabinet agencies in the federal government and one arguably that shouldn’t even exist.
Fact is, the federal government accounts for about 9 percent of total public education funding across the country. The rest of the money – and authority – rests with state and local governments. As it should.
This widespread misunderstanding of DeVos’ role is, at the very least, a profound failure of civic education. It’s also a kind of triumph for the administrative state and its hangers-on: the teachers unions (obviously), the professional associations and left-leaning activist groups that never met a government program or agency that wasn’t worth expanding.
You could hear it throughout DeVos’ admittedly lackluster confirmation hearing last month.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., parroted the teachers’ union line – even quoting American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten – that DeVos is somehow unqualified for the job because she has never been a classroom teacher.
But the secretary of education isn’t a teacher, or a principal or even the equivalent of a national district superintendent. The Department of Education teaches nothing. It distributes billions of tax dollars to programs, such as Title I, that often don’t work very well.
Even though DeVos might not have the command of edu-jargon that seems to impress and intimidate so many people, she understands something about public education that her Democratic opponents do not: a “public education,” rightly understood, is an education in how to be a self-governing citizen.
That’s DeVos’ real sin. She doesn’t believe government should have an absolute monopoly on schooling. She likes charter schools – which are, in fact public schools operated independently of traditional districts – and she really likes the idea of letting parents choose where and how they educate their kids.
Until recently, the Education Department exercised an outsized role in certain state and local prerogatives. During the Obama administration, Education Secretary Arne Duncan wielded excessive power in deciding whether states would be exempt from requirements under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Law, another piece of legislation that shouldn’t exist.
So what happened? Congress responded last year with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which included a provision that strips the secretary of the authority to impose conditions on states in exchange for waivers. That’s how proper congressional oversight works.
That’s also why DeVos cannot do even half of what her enemies claim. She can’t “take science out of school” or turn Title I into a giant voucher program. Because those things would require extensive changes in federal law. And it would mean greater centralization, which is a bad idea.
But if people are so afraid that Betsy DeVos is going to destroy public education, then maybe they should re-think what the role of the federal government in education should be.
Again, if my Twitter feed is any indication, some people are doing just that.
“Looks like I’ll be homeschooling my kid for the next 4 years so @BetsyDeVos doesn’t screw up his education #thanksussenate,” tweeted one. “@POTUS @BetsyDeVos thank you for confirming our choice to start homeschooling!” tweeted another.
See? That’s school choice in action. Not even a week on the job and DeVos’s message is sweeping the nation.
Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness (www.amgreatness.com). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @benboychuk.