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Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Scheider: What Betsy DeVos Accomplished

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Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider have written a valuable new book called A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School. They recently published an opinion article in The New York Times in which they demonstrate the role of Betsy DeVos in the “school reform” movement. They point out that Congress rejected her primary policy goal–sending public funding to private voucher schools–and that the new Biden administration is certain to reverse her assault on civil rights enforcement in education.

Her major accomplishment, they argue, was not one that she aimed for. She managed to disrupt the bipartisan consensus on national education policy, embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations. That consensus consisted of high-stakes testing and charter schools. Because DeVos advocated for charters and vouchers, many Democrats now view them warily and recognize that school choice was always a conservative policy. DeVos was never a huge supporter of high-stakes standardized testing except to the extent that test scores could be used to harm public schools. Her primary interest was defunding public schools and helping religious schools. Thanks to DeVos, the Democratic party may have fallen out of love with school choice.

They write:

More than three decades ago, conventional Republicans and centrist Democrats signed on to an unwritten treaty. Conservatives agreed to mute their push for private school vouchers, their preference for religious schools and their desire to slash spending on public school systems. In return, Democrats effectively gave up the push for school integration and embraced policies that reined in teachers unions.

Together, led by federal policy elites, Republicans and Democrats espoused the logic of markets in the public sphere, expanding school choice through publicly funded charter schools. Competition, both sides agreed, would strengthen schools. And the introduction of charters, this contingent believed, would empower parents as consumers by even further untethering school enrollment from family residence...

Through her attention-attracting assault on the public education system, Betsy DeVos has actually given the next secretary of education an opportunity — to recommit to public education as a public good, and a cornerstone of our democracy.

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