DeVos, who now chairs the Windquest Group, a private investment firm, has never spent a day much less a career teaching in the nation’s public schools.
Her principal involvement in education has been through special interest groups that push for the controversial use of school vouchers as a substitute for taxpayer-funded public schools.
The issue has been widely debated for years at the state and local level and has never been considered an area requiring overt federal involvement.
But it’s hard to see how DeVos will do anything less given her long-held belief in school vouchers. As Education Secretary, it remains to be seen how hard she pushes the idea, which critics say is an effort to dismantle public education in America.
Of course that’s not how DeVos sees it, or voucher proponents, if for varying reasons.
Former Baltimore City Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke advocated vouchers as a way for parents to pull their children out of poorly performing inner city schools and enroll them someplace else.
“If exercising this option leads to a mass exodus from certain underachieving schools, learn this painful lesson: schools will either improve, or close due to declining enrollments,” he argued.
In fact, most current voucher systems are targeted at poor families and children who show potential at poorly performing inner-city and rural schools.
Like Schmoke, DeVos believes school vouchers would inject competition into public education. Successful schools would help lift less successful ones, or like Schmoke says, see them close.
Unfortunately, like most education issues, improving public education is far more complex than simply giving students choice.
A school voucher system will never be meaningful unless every student has the opportunity to received what amounts to a federal subsidy. And that’s the first stumbling block.
About 85 percent of private schools are religious, according to the National Education Association. “Vouchers tend to be a means of circumventing the Constitutional prohibitions against subsidizing religious practice and instruction,” it says.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State also sees the issue in terms of religion.
“Americans must be free to contribute only to the religious groups of their choosing. Voucher programs violate this principle by forcing all taxpayers to underwrite religious education,” it argues.
“Often, religious schools promote sectarian dogma and take controversial stands on issues such as gay rights, the role of women in society and reproductive freedom.
“Taxpayers should not be required to subsidize the spread of religious/moral opinions they may strongly disagree with,” the group argues.
Even the Jewish Anti-Defamation League opposes the concept.
“Under voucher programs, our educational system — and our country — would become even more Balkanized than it already is,” it argues.
“With the help of taxpayers’ dollars, private schools would be filled with well-to-do and middle-class students and a handful of the best, most motivated students from inner cities.
“Some public schools would be left with fewer dollars to teach the poorest of the poor and other students who, for one reason or another, are not private school material. Such a scenario can hardly benefit public education,” it adds.
Indeed, that’s one of the fallacies of voucher systems.
Private schools have the right to reject students; public schools must open their doors to all no matter their motivation or learning potential.
Marginal students, who often need the most attention to succeed, would suffer the most because they would be left behind in schools struggling for funds.
The NEA, teacher’s unions and other school organizations say the answer is more direct support to improve chronically underfunded public schools.
“There is no need to set up new threats to schools for not performing. What is needed is help for the students, teachers,and schools who are struggling,” it says.
Quality public school systems not only have more money for better facilities and quality teachers, they also have motivated parent-teacher organizations, which may be the single biggest factor behind a school’s success.
Motivated parents who take an active role in their childrens’ schools are the surest check and balance on school quality.
One reason inner city schools come up short is because poor working parents don’t have the time, or simply aren’t motivated, to get involved.
School vouchers will only make matters worse by causing an exodus of parents and students who could be catalysts to improving standards.
By encouraging students to go elsewhere, vouchers also defeat the concept of neighborhood schools.
“A pure voucher system would only encourage economic, racial, ethnic, and religious stratification in our society. America’s success has been built on our ability to unify our diverse populations,” according to the NEA.
The largest teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), strongly opposes using public funds for vouchers.
The AFT sums up its position:
“Public funding of private or religious education transfers precious tax dollars from public schools, which are free and open to all children, accountable to parents and taxpayers alike, and essential to our democracy, to private and religious schools that charge for their services, select their students on the basis of religious or academic or family or personal characteristics, and are accountable only to their boards and clients.”
Worst of all, a sudden influx of school vouchers would inevitably lead to the rise of fly-by-night schools, just like the flood of private, for-profit colleges that chased federal student loans.
There’s no better example of that than Trump University. The president-elect just agreed to pay $25 million in restitution to students to head of a trial on three civil fraud lawsuits.
DeVos qualifications for education secretary, besides working long and hard for the Republican Party, is her affiliation with conservative education groups that are pushing vouchers.
In a statement announcing her appointment, Trump said DeVos would “break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.”
Oddly, DeVos is also under fire from hard-right groups because of her support of “Common Core.” She served on Jeb Bush’s education foundation, which pushed the concept, and donated heavily to it.
Now, however, she’s backed away from it, according to some media reports. Trump promised during the campaign to do away with Common Core in favor of local school control.
“If Trump also wants to make good on his promise to “drain the swamp” on behalf of Americans who are sick of political cronyism, DeVos is again a horrible pick,” according to one conservative news outlet.
In the final analysis, vouchers may not lead to better schools under any circumstances.
A 2002 U.S. General Accounting Office study found no significant achievement gains for students using vouchers versus students in public schools among the privately funded voucher programs it examined.
But with DeVos at the helm of the education department, it looks like the nation is about to go through a period of prolonged disruption of local school systems to simply reinvent the wheel.