Shortly after Betsy DeVos was sworn into office as U.S. Secretary of Education, I was invited, as a trustee of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), to meet with her at the Department of Education. I accepted the invitation with pleasure.
When I posted a picture of myself with DeVos on Facebook, it got some likes from conservative friends and some acerbic comments from others, including my sister, who asked me, “When did you start drinking the Kook-Aid?” I replied to her that I’ve supported school choice for decades and was the only member of the New Jersey Congressional delegation to vote for the first school-choice floor amendment in 1994.
I am a product of New Jersey public schools, K–12, as are my parents and my children, but ever since I read Milton Friedman’s proposal for school vouchers in “Capitalism and Freedom” as a college freshman, I have been convinced that parents should be allowed to have the government pay for the school they choose for their children, whether it be traditional public, public charter, private, or religious.
There is no reason why all parents shouldn’t be given this choice, but the stakes are particularly high for the poorest families in the inner cities, including those in New Jersey where, despite tens of billions of dollars of supplemental state funding, traditional public schools have abjectly failed to prepare several generations of children for college or a career.
An effective advocate
The main reason for the opposition to Betsy DeVos from the public and in the Senate is that she has been an effective advocate for school choice and has been an outspoken and generous supporter of education vouchers.
I certainly acknowledge that in her Senate confirmation hearings DeVos showed that she had a lot to learn about some of the issues that fall within the purview of the DOE, such as higher education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the distinction between growth and proficiency in measuring student achievement.
But that alone does not explain why DeVos, among all of Trump’s cabinet nominees, generated the fiercest opposition.
For the answer we must look to the two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Because charter schools are less likely to be unionized and private and religious schools are hardly ever unionized, both of these unions see school choice, and particularly school vouchers, as fatal to their future.
After DeVos was confirmed, the National Education Association’s president Lily Eskelsen Garcia bragged about the million email addresses the union had collected in its fight against the newly confirmed Education Secretary and flatly said, “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.”
After an equally fierce campaign against the confirmation by the American Federation of Teachers, its President, Randi Weingarten, and DeVos agreed (to the credit of both) to visit several public and private schools together.
Most Democratic education reformers are enthusiastic about charter schools and changes in tenure and seniority laws, but because Democratic candidates are so reliant on teachers unions, they have been divided on school vouchers. The NEA and AFT recognized this and were very successful in lining up opposition to DeVos from groups such as Democrats for Education Reform, which had previously been open to the idea of vouchers.
They were able to secure unanimous opposition among Democratic senators, including Cory Booker (D-NJ), who as mayor of Newark had served on the board of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and had been an outspoken advocate for school choice in all its forms.
To these 48 Democrats were added two Republicans, which forced an unprecedented tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence to ensure DeVos’s confirmation.
It’s no coincidence that the two Republicans who opposed DeVos, Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), have friendly relations with the teachers unions and represent two of the most rural states in the nation, where demand for school vouchers, or even charter schools, is low. (Incidentally, all charter school teachers in Alaska are unionized.)
The political power of the teachers unions derives not so much from their campaign contributions as from the unmatched way that they mobilize their members, who understand their interests and have been trained to communicate effectively with their elected representatives.
I have run for office with the support of the NJEA and without it. It’s definitely better to have it. But sometimes the price of even the most valuable endorsement is too high.