Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for U.S. secretary of education, would not be my candidate for that job. She is too optimistic about private school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged children and seems ignorant of the congenital flaws of for-profit charter schools.
But some of the negative reactions to DeVos, particularly the criticism of her never having attended a public school, are irritating. Suggesting that a private school education means you can’t understand and support public schools is lazy thinking. The false image of out-of-touch private schools ignores the creative strength of our nation’s diverse approach to teaching children.
DeVos — who is slated for a Senate committee confirmation vote Tuesday — acquired her primary and secondary education in the Holland Christian Schools of her hometown in Holland, Mich. She graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., a school that has a partnership with the Christian Reformed Church. You might argue that an exclusively nonpublic education is one reason she has been so critical of public schools, until you consider the educational background of another prominent American who seems to be the opposite of DeVos in nearly all respects.
That would be former president Barack Obama. Like DeVos, Obama never attended an American public school. His primary school education included two years at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School and a year and a half at the Besuki public school, both in Jakarta, Indonesia. He received much instruction in English there from his mother. He then transferred to the exclusive Punahou School in Honolulu, where he had a scholarship. He subsequently attended Occidental College, Columbia University and Harvard Law School, all private.
Yet Obama has been an outspoken champion of public schools. Private school doesn’t have to make you a snob. Catholic-educated teachers are among the best I have ever encountered in public high schools. To them, teaching is not just a job; it’s a mission. My heroes in this category include Jaime Escalante of Garfield High School in Los Angeles, Phil Restaino of Mamaroneck (N.Y.) High School and Bernie Glaze of Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County.
Many other privately educated teachers have done great work in public schools. Dave Levin attended Collegiate and Riverdale, New York City private schools, and Yale University. Yet he and his friend Mike Feinberg became star inner-city public school teachers and founded KIPP, the largest — and one of the most successful — nonprofit charter school networks.
DeVos could still develop an appreciation of the great work being done in urban public schools rather than call them a “dead end,” as she has done. But she has a long way to go. Like many supporters of tax-funded private school vouchers for disadvantaged students, she has overlooked the lack of many private school spaces for students like that. If private schools ever did accept significant numbers of voucher students, they would be sacrificing their treasured independence. Accepting lots of tax dollars invariably leads to federal regulation.
DeVos’s support for vouchers buttresses the false belief that private school students are better taught than public school students. Research shows that public schools achieve about as much as private schools with similar demographics. DeVos also does not seem to understand that for-profit charters are handicapped in recruiting the many fine teachers who prefer that their schools spend every cent on helping students, not investors.
Some education experts have said Obama was wrong to put test pressure on public schools while his daughters enjoyed a deep education free of that anxiety at the Sidwell Friends School. Those experts should have consulted Sidwell parents, like me, who know how driven by testing that school actually is.
The new bipartisan federal education law gives almost all the power over public schools to states and localities. Most of us have attended public schools and know their progress is dependent on local teachers, both privately and publicly educated. If we get the best people in those jobs, we have a chance for success no matter who the education secretary is in Washington.