On February 7, Betsy Devos was confirmed as the nation’s new education secretary after a contentious 50-50 vote in the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie. Coming to the job with no experience in public education—either as a student, parent, educator, or board member—DeVos’s only stated commitment is to expand “choice” nationally through charter schools and private-school vouchers, as she worked to do in her home state of Michigan.
There, DeVos was a key player in expanding a free-market system that features the largest number and percentage of for-profit charter schools in the nation: 79 percent of Michigan’s charters are for-profit. This is highly unusual, as more than 80 percent of charters nationwide are nonprofit. DeVos has also owned shares in K12 Inc., the nation’s largest operator of for-profit charter schools. In 2000, she helped fund an unsuccessful effort to change the state constitution in order to permit private-school vouchers.
In a recent interview about her goals as education secretary, DeVos stated that she intends to expand on this vision of choice, saying: “I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.”
“Choice” has become a popular mantra in education-reform circles, used primarily to describe initiatives to increase the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, and to increase funding for private schools through voucher systems. The presumption in both of these instances is that they will expand high-quality options for parents and students.
Yet even among ardent charter-school supporters, DeVos’s approach to choice is controversial. In an unexpected twist, the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association opposed her nomination because of concerns about the low quality of many charters under Michigan’s lax accountability rules. In addition, one of the nation’s leading proponents and funders of charter schools, billionaire Eli Broad, sent a strongly worded letter to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer stressing his opposition to DeVos. “At the risk of stating the obvious,” Broad wrote, “we must have a secretary of education who believes in public education and the need to keep public schools public.”
Clearly, the issues surrounding school choice are more complex than the typical pro-charter/anti-charter battle lines might suggest. The central question for a public-education system in a democratic society is not whether school options should exist, but whether high-quality schools are available to all children. The fact that choice doesn’t guarantee quality should be clear each time we flick through 500 cable-TV channels without finding a single good viewing option. In public education, this kind of choice is not an acceptable outcome.