DeVos pathos

The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government.”

— G.K. Chesterton, “The Man Who Was Thursday”

Our media rightly portray Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as enemy to our ancient order of officially branded “public” schools. She appears to feel a vocation to effect certain substantial changes that might prosper in our looming new society. In any case, for the moment I will assume so and agree that, to a point, if properly designed and focused, change in the system could be a blessing for many families and their children.

Paradoxically, I fear that, quite inadvertently, she has made herself an effective weapon for the defense and continuation of that relic system born of 19th century religious prejudice but today become the enemy of the poor and of any change that could empower such parents.

Ms. DeVos has been and appears yet to be a fervent apostle of the late Milton Friedman, sharing his free enterprise ideal for schooling as, in essence, just another arena of business, even if one of a unique sort.

I had the good fortune to meet Ms. DeVos in Michigan, probably in the late 1980s. The occasion for my visit was the organization of the campaign for her own designed and planned popular initiative for statewide school reform via vouchers for parents; someone had assumed that I would be a supporter. Sadly, the draft initiative was quite unsuited to the mission as I understood it – and would not be changed.

Before leaving for home, I explained my doubts to the good people who had invited me, drawing mixed reaction. I recall an elderly nun scolding me with the words of Pontius Pilate: “Quod scripsi, scripsi.” And she was right. What I had written I had written, and believed.

I still do.

The central problem with that first (then a successor) Michigan initiative was simply that Ms. DeVos had taken seriously the gospel of our mutual friend, Friedman, whom I had first known in Chicago as a repeat guest on my radio talk show. In his confident mind, both the end and means of any ideal system were to be settled, for schools as for any other salable good, with a virtually unregulated market, and, for reasons still unclear to me, he concluded that subsidies of equal value should go to all parents who applied regardless of their capacity to pay tuition.

With my wise collaborator (then and yet), Stephen Sugarman, I had always valued the efficiencies of markets, and, in the case of school, as a tool to rescue and empower poor and near-poor parents from futility and extend to them the experience of authority and responsibility already enjoyed in varying degrees by better-off families.

Any needs of the latter could be satisfied by graduated grants tending to zero at the high end of the income ladder. An ancillary hope was to diminish segregation by race as by wealth. Both purposes, we supposed, would be served if some modest fraction of every participating school’s admission decisions were to be made at random among all those applicants who had been rejected.

The DeVos Michigan-type initiative quickly became the model for free-marketeers in a dozen states, giving opponents the invitation to portray choice as a device for well-off parents to secure yet another free ride. Nor did it help then (or now) that such well-intended efforts for a wholly unregulated market secured most of the financial support for choice that came (and still does) from a relatively few wealthy sources.

Today’s activist centers promoting unregulated systems still label activists like ourselves “voucher left;” we, of course respond with “voucher right” while feeling truly entitled to claim “the middle.” By the way, all those Michigan-style initiatives were smashed at the polls.

That original DeVos choice has remained, for too many minds, the image of school choice as a right-wing threat to democracy, intended not for but against the poor. This calculated confusion has stayed well-financed by government unions, and, for a quarter-century, has remained an effective tranquilizer for the conscience of the open-minded but confused suburban voter who cherishes choice for his and her own and might otherwise be moved politically to take an interest in aiding the less lucky family.

Of course, I should and do applaud exceptions such as the schools of Milwaukee (per the great Howard Fuller) and those states, such as Florida which have painfully begun the rescue of the conscript family despite constant assault upon their efforts by the media at the coaxing of unions and pliant legislators.

For his own political reasons, Joe Biden – the could-be hero of the low-income family – has instead made clear his intention to avoid his chance to move the media debate over choice into the light of day. The opportunity for a federal clarification of the purpose and effective design of the necessary instruments of reform that can bring about the liberation of the family will be ignored. The fate of school choice will be left to the hero states.

Unless legislative leaders and governors receive some urgent vision, the poor family will unnecessarily remain an impotent institution. With the current population demand that we recognize the poor to be as human as the rest of us, might we instead begin to honor all parents as dignified fellow creatures?

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BY John E. Coons

John E. Coons is a professor of law, emeritus, University of California at Berkeley, and author with Stephen D. Sugarman of "Private Wealth and Public Education" and "Education by Choice."