Credit: Gage Skidmore/CreativeCommons
Next to President Trump himself, hardly any other member of the Executive Branch has come under as much virulent scrutiny as the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
Particularly ill-informed—and yet still damaging—are the attacks from the Left attempting to smear DeVos as an out-of-touch snob whose snobbishness might even be a little racist. Among these cynical attempts to conflate DeVos and racism include a recent headline from the LA Times, which asks the question: “Did Betsy DeVos confuse segregation with school choice?” and a series of articles from the NY Times and The Washington Post that attempted to turn the booing and back-turning in the audience during DeVos’ appearance at the historically black Bethune-Cookman University into a commentary on DeVos’ supposedly antagonistic relationship with black people.
And yet there is a bitter irony encased within all this talk, an irony little-acknowledged within the media intelligentsia but nevertheless apparent on the ground: The very group supposedly at war with Betsy DeVos, African-Americans, is also the group that stands to benefit most dramatically from her school-choice advocacy.
It has been apparent that there is this great dissonance between what the mainstream media thinks black Americans want and what they actually want. Nationwide, 63 percent of black voters support school choice in their neighborhoods. That number has remained steady since 2002, when Michael Leo Owens published an op-ed in the NY Times entitled “Why Blacks Support Vouchers.” In this article, Owens points out that unlike the cadre of Democratic black politicians at the top of the political-industrial complex, black parents are simply desperate for a quality education for their children. They realize that their schools are failing. And many of them see voucher programs—where they are granted funds to send their kids to a school of their choice—as their only hope. Such political arbitrage has great implications on Betsy DeVos’ mandate to fix the broken public schools in black communities.
It was these same black communities across America that were among the very first advocates for school choice. The rampant racism in the American South during the Jim Crow era encouraged them to pool together their own funds, starting their own private institutions to better their communities when no other options were available.
We’d like to think we’ve made progress since then, but can we really say that the public options are much better today? The schools in Detroit and Baltimore, where less than 15 percent of students take the SAT or ACT? Where the gap between white and black high school achievement are as wide as ever (with inner-city African American students likely worse off)? Yet Elizabeth Warren, the supposed champion of the underclass, voted against a proposition to expand the cap on charter schools in precisely these cities. Without these charter schools available, minority parents would again have to cope with the painful reality of living in a system feeding them only one, largely inferior, option for their son or daughter’s schooling.
The arguments for school choice even cross over into traditionally liberal ideas about race relations. Take the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public School system (CMS), which in the 1970s became the nation’s laboratory for school integration. After the Supreme Court forced CMS to integrate, the district responded by implementing one of the largest racial busing programs in the nation, taking black children into white schools and vice versa. Numerous studies conducted during that period have backed up what even conservatives opposed to integration must acknowledge: The busing of black students to richer suburban schools greatly helped the African American community rise to the higher standards applied at those schools. Charlotte applied forced integration to its fullest extent and achieved success for its black students. Now, after a 1999 court order blunted integration, Charlotte has regressed to some of the lowest levels of black student achievement in the nation. School choice policies aimed at the black community, though not as expansive or far-reaching as forced integration, will allow these parents to send their kids to more affluent schools again—the same goal to which advocates of integration aspire.
And, while forced integration is politically infeasible (not to mention legally questionable), voucher programs are certainly a path forward. Yet, in 2012, Mitt Romney and his plan to allow low-income families to choose whatever school they want for their children was roundly booed by the NAACP, with similar reactions from black activist groups for Betsy DeVos’ plan. Why do the same progressives who champion forced integration prefer de facto segregated public schools to school choice?
The philosophical opposition from the left to school choice is hinged largely on a kind of public school fundamentalism based on the incoherent idea that public school is the great equalizer, where students won’t get special privileges because they’re smarter or more gifted than their fellow student body. The NAACP’s stance against charter schools, for example, boils down to their 2016 moratorium on school choice, here:
There are indeed some excellent charter schools…. However, we also heard about the many poor charter schools that fail to serve children with the greatest needs, offer suboptimal education, and engage in financial mismanagement, sometimes pocketing public money to make a profit for private citizens.
This is the idea that because there are some charter schools that are worse than the area public school, that the whole theory of school choice is a miserable failure. This is the belief that a commitment to uniform mediocrity is better than a system of school competition and the power of the pocketbook to reward good schools and punish bad ones. What the NAACP is really suggesting here is that they don’t trust parents to make decisions for their own children. These are the kinds of attitudes of which the only logical endpoint is the belief that it is better that all fail rather than some succeed. It is this kind of equality fundamentalism that maintains the public school monopoly on our black children at the expense of innovation and educational entrepreneurship.
So there we have it. We have a discrepancy—a great, fat one—between the views of the elite, progressive community that rails against school choice and Betsy DeVos and its effects on people who are perhaps most vulnerable to devastating effects of an austere public school. The most basic truth in all public-education talk is that different people have different needs. Rich communities are not poor communities, and must be catered to differently. This is why we need innovation—incentivizing enterprising individuals and communities to work to promote alternative schooling models that will serve the needs of their respective populaces. If the Left wanted to give these students a better chance of success in life, they should embrace Betsy DeVos’ vision, rather than attempt to tear it down, and with it, the hope for millions of children across the United States.
Kenny Xu is a student journalist at Davidson College in Charlotte, NC, specializing in race relations issues from a conservative perspective. Follow him on Twitter @kennymxu