A few weeks ago, Massachusetts voters rejected a major expansion of charter schools statewide. In Chicago, a new teachers union contract limits charter capacity and threatens to strangle the growth of excellent charter schools in the city. The NAACP has demanded a moratorium on charter expansion nationally.
Into this charter-chilling atmosphere steps Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Department of Education. We like DeVos. Opinions vary: Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, calls her a “nightmare.”
DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist, has helped lead the national battle to expand education opportunities for children. She and her husband, Dick, who ran the parent company of Amway, helped pass Michigan’s first charter school law more than two decades ago. They started a political action committee to support candidates who back tuition vouchers. She chairs the American Federation for Children, which has fought for school choice, including vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. She has served on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a reform group launched by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
No, DeVos doesn’t have the typical educrat’s resume. But she’s successful and relentless. She backs innovation and giving families escape routes from inferior schools. We think she’ll breathe more oxygen into a public education industry that, in Illinois and elsewhere, resists accountability and disruptive reform while millions of children languish in low-wattage, taxpayer-owned schools.
As the nation’s leading education official, DeVos should have the power to expand education options. Nurturing high-quality charters is one way to do that. DeVos could boost the federal charter school program that helps expand and replicate the most successful schools. She could encourage districts to give the same funding to charters as they give to neighborhood schools. She could promote innovation — the best practices in high-performing classrooms, charter or not.
We’ve advocated state-funded vouchers so children and parents can flee lousy schools for better ones, public or private. Sadly, the voucher effort flounders in Illinois, in large part because teachers union leaders who feel threatened by competition wield so much clout. That failure of lawmakers strands students.
Could DeVos help persuade Springfield that it’s time to join Indiana, Ohio and other states to offer children this option? Sure. Could her Education Department create incentives for states to experiment or expand in this vital arena? We think so.
The feds’ role in local education has scaled back under the law that replaced No Child Left Behind. But the Education Department still has the power to streamline — or complicate — educators’ lives via regulation and red tape. It can cost, or save, districts millions of dollars. “She could have immediate impact in lightening the regulatory burden on schools and states, which yields a cost savings,” Leslie Hiner, head of programs at EdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, tells us.
DeVos “has a lot of influence in the reform community,” Peter Cunningham, a former Obama administration education official and now executive director of the reform-minded nonprofit Education Post, tells us. “She is unequivocally a champion for choice. The question is whether she is a champion for quality.”
We expect DeVos will prove that she is. She should be a voice for all the nation’s schoolchildren, not just those in charters. She can also remind Americans that charters aren’t the enemy of public schools; they are public schools. Some boost academic progress significantly, some do not. The task of DeVos, of every school official and educator, is to expand the best charters and close the worst.