The ‘Shaming’ of Betsy DeVos

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The education secretary should use what her critics fear most: the bully pulpit.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Feb. 23.

Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Feb. 23.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Here’s a suggestion for America’s new secretary of education: Forget about federal education policy.

Not that policy isn’t important. But if Betsy DeVos wants to make her time count, she’d do best to use what her critics fear most: her bully pulpit. Because if Mrs. DeVos does nothing else in her time but lay bare the corruption of a system failing children who need a decent education most—and shame all those standing in the way of reforming it—she will go down as an education secretary of consequence.

“The temptation for an education secretary is to make a few earnest speeches but never really challenge the forces responsible for failure,” says Jeanne Allen,founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform.

“But the moms and dads whose children are stuck in schools where they aren’t learning need better choices now—and a secretary of education who speaks up for them and takes on the teachers unions and the politicians on their own turf.”

Excellent advice, not least because education is (rightly) a state and local issue and Secretary DeVos has neither the authority nor the wherewithal to transform our public schools from Washington. What she does have is the means to force the moral case out into the open.

New York City would be a good place to start. In Bill de Blasio, the city boasts, if that is the right word, a mayor who fancies himself the nation’s progressive-in-chief, along with a schools chancellor who has all the credentials Mrs. DeVos is accused of lacking, including experience teaching in public schools.

Unfortunately, these credentials haven’t done much to help students. Only 36% of New York City district-school pupils from grades 3 to 8 passed math, and only 38% English. For black students the numbers drop to 20% proficient in math and 27% in English. As a general rule, the longer New York City kids stay in traditional public schools, the worse they do.

It can’t be for lack of resources. Figures from the city’s independent budget office list New York as spending $23,516 per pupil this school year, among the most in the U.S. And instead of closing bad schools, Mr. de Blasio has opted for the teachers-union solution: More spending!

The result? More than two years and nearly half a billion dollars after his “Renewal” program for chronically failing schools was announced, there’s little to show for it.

How might Mrs. DeVos respond? How about a trip to the South Bronx, where she could visit, say, MS 301 Paul L. Dunbar, St. Athanasius and the Success Academy Bronx 1 grade and middle schools. These are, respectively, a traditional public middle-school for grades 6-8, a K-8 Catholic school, and a pair of Success charters serving K-7.

Imagine how Mrs. DeVos might change the conversation by speaking publicly about the differences among these schools? Or by meeting with neighborhood kids languishing on the 44,000-long wait list for a seat at a city charter? Or by asking the non-Catholic parents at St. Athanasius, whose children are there because of a scholarship program, to talk about the difference this school is making in their children’s lives?

Mayor de Blasio would howl. The teachers unions would show up to protest. But the furor a DeVos visit provoked would underscore her point about just whose interests are being sacrificed—and provide a tremendous force equalizer for outgunned parents and reformers taking on the education establishment.

Now imagine Mrs. DeVos making this same kind of visit to other cities where the public-school systems for decades have effectively been consigning their poor and minority students to a future on the margins of the American dream: Baltimore, Detroit, Fresno, Calif., etc. And not just the cities: Rural districts have their own share of complacent pols of both parties who need to be called to account.

Certainly the teachers unions and the Democrats they hold in their pockets account for the core of the opposition to the choice and accountability. But the GOP has made its own grim contributions to our two-tiered public-school system. This includes in Illinois in 2010, when nearly half the Republicans in the state House provided the margin needed to kill a Chicago voucher program.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy has to be reminded that the ruby slippers she wears must be very powerful or the Wicked Witch wouldn’t want them so badly. Mrs. DeVos finds herself in a similar position. She will do well to remember that the nastiness of her confirmation was in fact a backhanded recognition by her foes that they have lost the moral argument.

“The opposition to change is not polite and always on the offense,” says Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York. “Betsy’s going to need to play offense or we will lose another generation of children.”

Write to McGurn@wsj.com.

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