Tuesday, February 07, 2017

A New Day for School Choice?

Secretary of Education designate, Betsy DeVoss
If one follows the media coverage of Secretary of Education designate, Elisabeth ‘Betsy’ DeVos, one would think that that she is an ignorant uncaring racist out to destroy public school education as we know it – leaving countless numbers of inner city children to the streets and a life of crime. 

The truth however lies elsewhere. Let us examine what’s really bothering Democrats and why she is so strongly supported by Republicans. And while were at it, let us examine the educational system itself as it stands now.

First let us admit that the fact that she is both a billionaire and a Republican does not help her with Democrats in their current incarnation as liberals. Of the type that always support the underdog outside of any context. This is true with Palestinians and it is true about inner city youth. In both cases they see only the down-trodden and blame it on the ruling class (read - Republicans) that cares only about itself.

The mainstream media is cut from the same liberal cloth and has no compunction in painting DeVos as ignorant by blowing some of her comments at senate hearings way out of proportion. That along with the anti Trump feelings of half the country feeds that negative image to a willing audience whose actual knowledge of education makes DeVos look like an expert. The protests are huge. And opposition by the Democratic minority in the senate is fierce.

Senate confirmation hearings have resulted in 2 Republican defections: Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. They have joined Democrats in opposition to her. Their claim is that DeVos’s ignorance of education disqualifies her from the position. But the truth is that Democrats side with the very powerful teachers unions across the country that fear their member teachers losing their jobs. Why? Mrs. DeVos will no doubt try to implement what they see as a cataclysmic change to the system! 

Of course Democrats never mention the influence of teachers unions in their opposition. But they do use their arguments that the kind of changes Mrs. DeVoss advocates would destroy public education as we know it. (And many teachers’ jobs right along with it.)

So what is it exactly that all this opposition is really about? Two words: school choice. (It’s interesting that the only time liberal Democrats are pro choice is for abortion on demand… not for educating their children. But I digress.)

Mrs. DeVos is a strong advocate of a voucher system replacing the current one requiring - in most cases - parents sending their children to local neighborhood public schools. Instead the Department of Education would distribute vouchers to parents. Those vouchers will be the equivalent of money which can only be used to towards educating their children. They can take those vouchers and choose any school they wish provided minimal educational standards are met.

I really do not understand the opposition to this in a Democracy. Every parent should have the right to educate their children as they see fit. If a country believes it is in its best interest to have an educated public - thereby providing free education to its young… what better way to do that than by allowing parents to choose the education that best suits their needs – as long educational standards are met?

Will this take money out of the system as it stands now? This is exactly what the opposition is about. They say that the inner city schools will suffer. Vouchers will take money out of the inner city schools and diverted to the better schools chosen by parents.

That may be true. But that is a good thing. There is a reason those inner city schools will suffer. In many cases they deserve it! Parents that care about their children want to them to attend schools that successfully teach their students. Many of these inner city schools do not do that. In some cases they are schools in name only – siphoning government funds so that teachers can continue to have jobs. Many children that live in those neighborhoods and attend those schools end up being functionally illiterate.

Not because the parents want it that way. But because of a culture that has evolved not seeing much value in a typical education.  A lot of young people there see a life of crime being far more profitable that any education they might receive in a public school. It is a self perpetuating system that continues to exist courtesy of a government controlled by Democrats for the past 8 years. They want to maintain the status quo and kept  pouring money down that black hole in the hope that eventually things will improve.

Now there are some inner city schools that are the exception.. Their record with respect to educating their students have seen remarkable improvement. But I submit that those schools will be the among those that inner city parents who care about the quality of their children’s education will choose via their vouchers. The bottom line is that the schools that don’t produce – will indeed close. As they should.

What about us? …those of us that want our children to get a good education in a religious environment? In a country where separation of church and state is a sacred principle, how can we use vouchers to pay for a religious education?

That is one of the arguments made by opponents of vouchers. In my view and those that support a voucher system to replace the current one do not see that as a valid argument. It will not violate church state restrictions if vouchers are used to pay only for teaching subjects that are free of any religious content.

One may argue that it is impossible for religion to be kept entirely out of the classroom in a religious school. But I doubt that even public schools can live up to such a high degree of secular purity. Do they not require the pledge of allegiance which contains a reference to God? Is that not an insertion of religion into the public schools?

I can state with complete certainly that the secular subjects I studied in the day school and Yeshiva high school had no religious content at all. Many of my teachers were not even Jewish, let alone Orthodox.

It is no small coincidence that Mrs. DeVos was chosen by an administration, whose Vice President is Mike Pence. He was the governor of Indiana who presided over  a very successful voucher program. One that my own daughter takes advantage of as an Indiana resident. Her tuition bill was significantly reduced from what she paid living Illinois. Day School and Yeshiva tuitions in Illinois are backbreaking for the vast majority of parents who are squeezed by tuition committees for every nickel they can get! This is true for every school - from Modern Orthodox to Charedi.

I doubt there is a parent in any of these schools that would oppose a national voucher program that would relieve them of some of that burden the way it has for my daughter. Which is exactly what Mrs. DeVoss advocates. And exactly why she is opposed by liberal Democrats and 2 liberal Republicans.

It is for that reason that I voice my strong support for her nomination as Secretary of Education. Don’t let the distorted media coverage of Mrs. DeVoss fool you. She is not the Christian missionary the Reform Movement says she is. Nor is she is as ignorant as she is being painted - despite some mistaken comments she made during her senate hearings.

She has been deeply involved with education in Michigan for quite some time now. As a devout Christian she understands the value of a religious education. And has worked with some Orthodox Jewish advocacy groups to lobby Washington in  favor of school choice.

The current state of public education in this country in the inner city is nothing to brag about. The system needs a major overhaul.  Some examples: Inner city education needs to be redefined to include more vocational training. Unproductive schools need to close. Let teachers that can’t or don’t teach lose their jobs. Let us stop pouring money into the black hole of public education as it now stands. Let the parents decide what schools their children attend. This way everybody wins except for those that don’t deserve it.