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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Betsy DeVos and the Manichean Impulse

By Rick Hess — January 17, 2017 2 min read
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Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, a longtime education advocate and philanthropist, is slated to testify before the Senate education committee today. In some quarters—in quite a few, actually—her nomination has been portrayed as a horrific development.

Just days after DeVos’s nomination was announced, the New York Times ran an op-ed attacking her as anti-science because . . . she supports a less regulated version of charter schooling than did the op-ed’s author. The New Yorker wrung its hands at the sinister threat posed by DeVos having attended a religious high school. AFT president Randi Weingarten went to the National Press Club to denounce DeVos for being anti-education, anti-teacher, and a sworn enemy of the nation’s children.

I’ll be clear. I think DeVos is a solid pick. I think she’s smart, thoughtful, and committed to doing what she thinks best (full disclosure: DeVos sits on the board of the American Enterprise Institute, where I’m director of education policy. So take my view for what you will). I like that DeVos hasn’t spent her life in education bureaucracies, is an outspoken champion of all kinds of educational choice, strikes those who’ve driven Obama-era school reform as an “outsider,” and is a small government conservative.

But I understand that reasonable people can see things differently. I’ve got no quarrel with those who oppose her. For many of us, the fact that she doesn’t have experience managing bureaucracies and would like to see Washington’s role shrink is a plus. For others, these things are red flags. Okay, I get it. Some oppose her nomination because they don’t want a Secretary of Education who supports school vouchers or for-profit charter school operators. That’s cool, too.

I have a big problem, though, with those who can’t leave it at that; who feel compelled to cast her as a malicious force or launch vitriolic attacks based on where she sent her kids to school. This feels like a natural but unfortunate extension of the overheated rhetoric around things like the Common Core and teacher accountability, where one side dismisses concerns as evidence of small-minded idiocy and the other thunders about a “war on teachers.” In those debates, many of us—and, I think, a big swath of the American people—wind up thinking, “A plague on both your houses.”

This Manichean divide swallows any sense of proportion. It crowds out serious debate. It makes it impossible to solve problems or seek common ground. And that’s not good for anyone.

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