Scott Alexander did a sort-of Man From Mars argument from first principles for more competition, choice, and (possibly) privatization in publicly funded education. It’s worth reading, and in spite of the multiple objections I listed here, I’m not unsympathetic; I’ve told the story of the half-million dollar grant we won to build a science lab in my old school, that the school construction authority devoured with next to nothing to show for it (literally the same gum wrappers under the same non-functioning air conditioner when they were done as when they started.) It’s not an isolated case- LA spent over a half-billion dollars to build a single new high school a few years back. Anyone who spends any time looking into IDEA and how special education funding actually gets spent, comes away ashen faced and shaken, dizzy at the thought of so much worthless bureaucracy and paperwork. And so on. As with American health care, the details of what money is used for in American education are not anyone’s ideal of efficiency, and whether or not charters or vouchers or Deschooling Society would actually solve these problems or make them worse, the problems are problems. DeVos gets a lot of crap for the troubled rapid charter expansion in Detroit she subsidized, but it’s also true that the public high schools in Detroit had a planned average class size of 62 in 2011, despite average student expenditures around 14K per kid. Where’s the money going is very often a fair question, and competition is a reasonable if not unique approach to reining public education in.
But this is all besides the point, since I’m fairly certain that massive privatization is the last thing in the world that will happen as a result of Betsy DeVos becoming Secretary of Education. Billionaire Philanthropist Choice Advocate is just not a skill set or public identity that will allow her to use the Federal bureaucracy and the limited carrots and sticks available to her to manipulate a contentious, divided country into giving up local control of schooling- one of the only things keeping our country from splitting apart at the seams. The nation’s schools are getting poorer and less white faster than the nation is, and there is going to be a deep divide between many of the people running, attending, and working in the school system and anyone associated with President Trump. Even more importantly, keeping middle-class parents, lower-income parents, and an aging electorate all on the same page is going to get ever harder, and will make the case for educational localism stronger rather than weaker over time. Obama and Arne Duncan were almost ideally situated to push a strong ed reform line- the first black President, with a silver ear for the worries of upper middle class voters, and a former Chicago Superintendent had the right institutional credibility, along with the leeway that the financial crisis gave, to use bailing out states and districts as leverage to get them to embrace more charters and choice, harder tests, and stricter teacher evaluation systems, most of which states and districts wanted anyways. My sense prior to the election was that the Democrats were preparing for a long-run battle between their middle class and lower-income supporters, that would be centered around children and schools. But if TFA- the nexus and node of American education reform over the last 20 years- can’t respond to DeVos’s selection with anything but “we’re not racist not racist not racist,” than we can see a preview of how DeVos is going to be spending her time doing for the next few years.
This doesn’t mean that DeVos won’t push for school choice, or isn’t a true believer, but the breaks is the breaks. Trump can braggadocio his way into flouting conventional wisdom and giving a Bronx cheer to anyone who criticizes him, but that’s mostly on issues popular with his supporters. My sense is that privatizing public education is about as popular with Trumps’ core supporters as privatizing Medicare is.
As in health care, the contradictions and frustrations of American education are not merely inefficiency in search of an explanation but a result and consequence of the contradictions of the country- an absurdly wealthy nation with a populace wildly distributed across axes of values, advantage, and needs. It is my belief that given those constraints, Caesar should render unto the provinces what is the provinces’; some degree of educational localism is the best we can do, with charter schools and vouchers better understood as a kind of perennial Brandeisian Experiment than a lasting or comprehensive solution to problems that are ultimately problems inherent to American democracy rather than technical problems of instruction. If she is wise, DeVos will allow the states and districts that want to add more charters do so, and highlight successes as they arise, but let the country go its many ways without directing it along a single narrow path. And even if she is not wise, the country will go its many ways anyways.