Note to Progressives: Betsy DeVos' Weakness Is Her Disregard for Evidence

DeVos’ devotion to school choice overlooks empirical evidence

| Corrected: November 20, 2017
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Bruce Fuller, Opinion Contributor
—Photo: Craig Sherod Photography
Bruce Fuller, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, works on how schools and civic activists push to advance pluralistic communities. He is a regular opinion contributor to where he trades views with Lance Izumi, on the other side of the political aisle. Read Lance Izumi’s response to this essay.

The reign of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, lording over the kingdom's schools, seeks to levy higher taxes on struggling peons. Gluttony inside the castle, after all, must be fed.

So goes the Left's attack on President Donald Trump’s education secretary: Shifting public dollars to private schools. Taxing the many to enrich the gilded class. Off with Robin Hood’s head.

Yet, is this caricature fair? How far does she depart from her boss's pro-choice predecessors, Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?

Make no mistake, DeVos and Trump aim to move public dollars to well-off families who prefer tony private schools. This priority appears in the House Republican tax bill, debated this week on Capitol Hill, hijacking an existing college-savings deduction, known as 529 plans, to permit redirection of up to $10,000 to cover private K-12 tuition costs. According to a report published by the Brookings Institution, "the provision almost exclusively benefits the seven in 10 families with 529 plans who have six-figure incomes."

"Democrats lack a coherent narrative about how to build colorful schools free of stultifying bureaucracy and recalcitrant unions."

DeVos' silent nod with Trump's effort to scrap the option of deducting local tax levies when filing federal taxes further betrays her royalist leanings. It currently cuts 28 cents from federal taxes, on average, for each dollar paid in state and local taxes, now aiding roughly 24 million Americans earning under $100,000, according to a report by the Government Finance Officers Association.

"Most people will notice higher taxes under the Republican plan," a senior congressional aide told me on the condition of anonymity, "and think, 'Hey, I can’t spend more on my local schools.'"

This return to "double taxation" of middle-class income would fatten the U.S. Treasury by $1.8 trillion over the coming decade, paying for cuts going to big corporations and wealthy families. When fully implemented, the richest 1 percent would enjoy nearly one-half of this tax bonanza, reports the Urban Institute's and Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center.

Most governors now oppose Trump's move to shred the local tax deduction. "There’s not a governor in the room that doesn't want a strong education base to help their kids and families get ahead," Aaliyah Samuel, the director of the education division at the National Governors Association, told me recently.

DeVos, moving on a third front, advocates federal tuition credits, where well-off donors score tax savings when contributing to private school vouchers. But this is falling flat in the Senate. "It would take a sustained and lengthy engagement by the president, not just the [education] secretary, to move a choice initiative," a senior Republican aide shared with me on the condition of anonymity. "Out in big western states, Republican senators don’t see vouchers as viable," where scarce private schools are scattered across wide distances, the aide explained.

Distasteful profiteering also marks tax-credit schemes, as in Arizona where the Republican state Senate leader, Steve Yarbrough, earns about $125,000 a year from a scholarship organization that distributes private school vouchers while pushing to expand the program in his legislature, according to the New York Times.

Trump budget officials rightly argue that failing federal programs should be killed. But under that empirical standard, voucher initiatives that underwrite private schools in the nation’s capital, for example, should be shut down, showing no buoyant effects on student learning relative to peers attending nearby public schools. Vouchers have displayed positive competitive effects in Florida, the evidence repeatedly cherry-picked by DeVos.

At times, DeVos' pious devotion to choice undercuts her own cause. Some 428 private schools have closed in Los Angeles over the past 15 years, mostly Christian academies, as detailed by my Berkeley colleague Malena Arcidiacono. Why? The unrestrained growth of charter schools—spurred by DeVos' allies—kills off religious competitors.

Still, Democrats lack a coherent narrative about how to build colorful schools free of stultifying bureaucracy and recalcitrant unions. And what’s happened to the Left’s historical fealty to schools that foster tighter neighborhoods? Is the concerted attack simply playing into Trump’s polarizing hand?

Opening a dual-language Armenian school in Los Angeles wins praise from a variety of liberals. Then, they cringe when the Conference of Catholic Bishops urges "teaching to the mind, body, and soul," as its policy director Greg Dolan puts it. "We really appreciate how [DeVos] advocates for placing parents first, [offering] a truer range of choices."

Progressives like Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City eagerly grow nonprofits to run quality preschools. In 1972, Democrats made federal aid to higher education, in the form of Pell Grants, fully portable so students can choose to attend the college of their choice.

Betsy DeVos may become a weathered bumper sticker, faintly echoing Trump’s political base while flitting about in her personal jet. But the choice movement sprouts from progressive roots: cultivating schools in synch with the nation’s ethnic and religious pluralism.

Rather than vilifying DeVos, Democrats must surely hammer on her feudal tendencies and her blatant disregard for evidence. Then, articulate how a rainbow of public school options can respond to America’s differences, while speaking to our shared yearning for fulfilling communities.

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A previous version of this Commentary included a quote from Aaliyah Samuel, the director of the education division at the National Governors Association, with inaccurate wording. The quote has been updated.

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