Fear of the Trump administration’s nascent education policy has coalesced around the idea that Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is the agent of a furtive movement for “privatization” that seeks to destroy the public-school system. Teachers’ unions and liberal pundits and academics claim that mass defunding of public schools is the real goal behind “school choice.”
Emma Brown at the Washington Post summarized the divide over language last week:
[Reformers] say they are part of a movement for school choice, for empowering all parents, regardless of income, to select the best learning experience for their children.
Others believe that fixing American education will require bolstering the public school systems that are obligated to serve every child.
To them, “school choice” is a code. They call it “privatization.”
These “others” are advocates of the public-school status quo, and argue that education resources should go to district schools only. They consider all the supposed choices DeVos supports — charters, vouchers for private schools, and tax credits for those who want to homeschool — fronts for a movement that seeks to defund public schools and leave ordinary Americans with lackluster for-profit substitutes.
The threat of privatization is a way to justify rigid adherence to the public-school system, so it’s no surprise that teachers’ unions are among DeVos’s fiercest opponents. Immediately following DeVos’s nomination, the president of the American Federation for Teachers, Randi Weingarten, tied her to privatization and its supposedly deleterious effects: “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.”
At the Huffington Post, Daniel Katz wrote, “With [DeVos’s] appointment, the Trump administration’s priorities for our nation’s schools are made crystal clear: to hell with quality, to hell with equity, to hell with everything except privatization.”
The New Yorker published a piece by Rebecca Mead, subtly titled “Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools,” in which she cast aspersions on DeVos for going to a private Christian school, and attempted to impart spiritual meaning to public schools:
Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good — as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment.
(Liberals only seem to bust out old-timey words such as “commonweal” when they are defending government compulsion.)
The New York Times published an opinion piece by Katherine Stewart, which targeted DeVos by connecting her to Stewart’s favorite public enemy, the Religious Right. After describing how DeVos’s family has supported “extremists” on the right, she said, “Ms. DeVos is a chip off the old block. At a 2001 gathering of conservative Christian philanthropists, she singled out education reform as a way to ‘advance God’s kingdom.’ In an interview, she and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., said that school choice would lead to ‘greater kingdom gain.’”
History shows that public-school monopolies are the path to imposing beliefs on others, but choice isn’t.
Stewart has written books about Christianity, so she should realize that such phrases are a standard way in which Evangelicals describe a public good. “God’s kingdom” is no more a call for theocracy than “social justice” is. But not all of Stewart’s readers know that, so DeVos’s innocuous statement functions as evidence that she wants the state to promote Christianity. Throw in a decades-old quote from Jerry Falwell Sr. and the argument is fit to print in the Times.
Ironically, history shows that public-school monopolies are the path to imposing beliefs on others, but choice isn’t. As Neal McCluskey points out, public schools were once wielded to benefit Protestant Christians, while school choice provides something philosophically opposite.What’s more, “privatization” does not accurately sum up the ideas of even the most ardent school-choice advocates such as DeVos. Voucher programs do not defund public schools. Charter schools are public schools that simply operate with less burdensome regulation. And no state legislature has any kind of plan to shutter or privatize its public schools.
While opponents of school choice are hard at work popularizing the term “privatization” and enveloping it in the specter of capitalist avarice and religious zealotry, reformers should continue using the language of choice. It is straightforward, concrete, and highlights the crucial policy difference between the two groups. Choice is exactly what defenders of the public-school status quo refuse to allow and exactly what parents need. DeVos and her allies should continue fighting to provide it.
— Paul Crookston is a Collegiate Network Fellow at National Review.