Don't prejudge Betsy DeVos

I believe in giving people chances, whether they are my three crazy boys, my wonderful but imperfect husband, my troubled former students at an inner-city school, or the controversial new nominee for Secretary of Education—whose confirmation hearing next week should be watched closely by everyone who has a stake in U.S. education.

A quick scan of headlines and Twitter can leave one believing that she is either the one and only figure in America hell-bent on destroying public education altogether or the best thing to ever happen to U.S. schools. Yet neither extreme adds anything useful to the discussion, and both are premature.

On the former side are Democrats, union leaders, and anti-reform voices, who’ve particularly bemoaned that she herself is not the product of public schools, has never taught in a public school, and her own children didn’t attend public school.

There was a time I would have agreed with this critique. I still remember an argument I had in a San Diego bar more than ten years ago. I was a twenty-eight-year-old high school teacher, appalled by what I saw as the hypocrisy of members of Congress and even our presidents for not sending their own children to public schools. There was no convincing me otherwise.

And then I had children of my own.

Parents are hardwired to do what is best for their children, and I’ve come to believe through many years of watching, listening, and parenting that where parents send their children to school does not disqualify them from anything, other than perhaps the Parent Teacher Organization of the school they didn’t choose.

Betsy DeVos’s ability to fulfill the obligations of the role of Secretary of Education does not rest on the name of her high school alma mater or that of her children. It rests far more on her ability to understand the innate desire for so many parents to choose the best school for their child—and for that school to be really good, not just compared to the school down the street, but compared to the best school in the state. 

With that said, most who are vehemently pro-DeVos can’t possibly know enough about her to justify such enthusiasm. We know that she’s a billionaire who supports choice. Yet 94 percent of American public school students attend a non-charter district school. Therefore, before we give our unconditional seal of approval, we ought to wait to hear DeVos explain how she’s going to drastically improve our underperforming district schools and turn them into schools of choice. EdWeek compiled a list of questions from a wide swath of education policy experts that DeVos ought to be asked, and one hits directly on this issue:

You've been a strong advocate for charters. Nationally, only about 6% of students attend these schools. Leaving aside the question of whether charters have outperformed non-charter public schools, what are your plans to improve the non-charter public schools: improve the teacher force, build capacity, and strengthen leadership and teaching?

We also need to know how she plans to address issues like charter school quality, students’ civil rights, or career and technical education. The same goes for questions of school accountability and who is responsible for ensuring that all school options for families—whether rich or poor—are quality ones.

Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education under Obama, recently said that “part of the federal K–12 role is protecting kids from bad things.” So let’s also find out whether DeVos agrees with that statement or thinks that protecting kids is best left entirely to states and local school districts.

These are a lot of open questions. But the very fact that there are so many of them is one of the main reasons DeVos deserves a chance. Indeed, as former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, recently said to The 74:

That sense that we can do anything has been what holds us together. I think what may be breaking us apart is lack of confidence about whether that narrative is actually any longer available to most people. At the core of that is education. If I can look at your ZIP code and I can tell whether you’re going to get a good education, I really can’t say it doesn’t matter where you came from.

I don’t know if Betsy DeVos will be a good Education Secretary, but I’m confident she can be. And after her very likely confirmation, it behooves all of us to get behind her, support her when she’s right, push back hard when she’s wrong, and work towards the day when neither Condoleezza Rice nor the rest of us can make the predictions based on ZIP code that we can today.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute