The philanthropist and veteran school-reform advocate who served as education secretary under President Trump says the Covid pandemic was an inflection point. “During the last two years, the failings of the school system have been laid bare to families in a way like never before,”
told me by phone on Monday. “I think it’s hastening the moment in time when we will be able to get significant policy change implemented to support families and kids rather than the system.”
That “system” is the subject of Mrs. DeVos’s new book, “Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child.” The title is taken from
the 19th-century politician and educator who is widely credited with founding the public-school apparatus. “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education,” Mann once wrote, “are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.” In a book that is part memoir and part school-reform manifesto, Mrs. DeVos makes a compelling case for freeing the hostages.
Betsy DeVos would have been a controversial cabinet pick even if
hadn’t been the one to tap her. She supports vouchers, education tax credits and home schooling. She funds grass-roots organizations that lobby for school reform. She and her husband, Dick, started a charter school in Michigan. Critics, led by the teachers unions, claimed she wasn’t qualified for the position, but their real issue was her belief that K-12 education places the interests of adults ahead of the interests of children—a dynamic she has spent more than three decades trying to change via school choice. “The school union bosses’ problem with me wasn’t that they thought I was unqualified,” she writes. “It was that they knew I was dangerous to their agenda.”
Democrats and teachers unions officially wed in 1979, when President Carter signed legislation to establish the Department of Education. Three years earlier Mr. Carter had cut a deal with the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, to create the new federal department in exchange for the union’s support in the election. The Democratic Party has been doing more or less what teachers unions demand ever since.
Democratic politicians who aspire to higher office know the risks of getting crosswise with teachers unions. Before she was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and a presidential candidate,
supported school vouchers. In a 2003 book co-authored with her daughter, Ms. Warren argued in favor of a “fully funded” and “well-designed voucher program” that would “relieve parents from the terrible choice of leaving their kids in lousy schools or bankrupting themselves to escape those schools.” That’s exactly the type of school choice that Mrs. DeVos has spent her adult life advocating, yet it didn’t stop the senator from becoming one of Mrs. DeVos’s most vocal opponents.
The behavior of Sen.
of New Jersey was even more shameless. Before he was elected to the Senate, Mr. Booker was mayor of Newark, a staunch school-choice advocate, and a recipient of the DeVoses’ largess. In the 2000s, he and Mrs. DeVos served together on the boards of several organizations that supported educational choice. In a 2016 keynote address to the American Federation for Children, a national school-choice advocacy group that Mrs. DeVos helped create, Mr. Booker said “the mission of this organization is aligned with the mission of our nation.”
Eight months later, Mr. Booker opposed Mrs. DeVos’s nomination for education secretary. “I reached out to him to meet, both before and after my confirmation hearing, but he was never available,” she writes. “I was disappointed and hurt by Cory’s actions, but I wasn’t surprised. He was running for the nomination of the Democratic Party for president in 2020. He couldn’t betray the well-funded, well-organized interest groups that held his political future in the palms of their hands—and held our children as hostages to their self-interested cause.”
As the teachers unions continue to throw their weight around the Democratic Party, Mrs. DeVos said their behavior during the pandemic has hurt their standing with Americans. “There’s a real tone-deafness to the kind of damage their politicized agenda and decisions have inflicted on kids, and we won’t know the full extent of it for years.” she said. “It’s the kids who could least afford to be locked out of school who were out the longest.”
She believes the current curriculum fisticuffs over racial propaganda and sexualized early learning can only help the school-choice cause: “The lightbulb has gone on for many families who weren’t aware of the things going on in their children’s schools. They’re becoming aware of how little knowledge or control they’ve had. Support for the notion that resources should follow the child—versus going to the system—continues to rise.”
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