With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education yesterday, President Trump won a fiercely-fought battle -- with game-changing implications. DeVos, a tireless proponent for school choice, was opposed by a solid wall of Democrats and two dissenting Republicans, requiring a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.
The proponents of a government monopoly on education are having a meltdown. “A sad day for children,” was the assessment of teachers union boss Randi Weingarten, who earns a cool half a mill as President of the American Federation of Teachers. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson essentially called DeVos a murderer:
DeVos is a religious conservative, and as such, Ayn Rand might have reflexively disliked her, having repeatedly criticized religion and conservatism. But the argument for school choice is grounded in the moral rights of individuals to choose for themselves -- and their children. Rand rejected conservatives who seek “to uphold the status quo, the given, the established, regardless of what it might be, regardless of whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, defensible or indefensible.”
But DeVos is trying to overturn the status quo. She is a conservative who respects tradition -- but it is the tradition of education on which this country was founded -- private education, parental choice, and market options. You can call her a conservative. I call her a revolutionary, and a student of history, who remembers the kind of education system which gave America its start.
The power of memory is central, not just to the life of a person, but to the life of a people. In his short story, “Children of the Alley,” Nobel prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz writes, “Good examples would not be wasted on our alley were it not afflicted with forgetfulness. But forgetfulness is the plague of our alley.”
National forgetfulness plagues our discussion of education reform as well. Most of us have implicitly bought into a version of history that flies in the face of the facts.
We’ve all heard it before in the arguments against choice -- and for the status quo: It’s a version of history that holds that America was founded on public education; that education was not widely available before the introduction of public schools; that our government-run system is responsible for widespread literacy and universal school attendance; and that this system is as American as our Constitution, our flag, and our democracy.
All four statements are widely accepted as conventional wisdom. To challenge them is considered, at best, silly and, at worst, sinister—even un-American. No wonder it is so painful to conclude that they are untrue. But it is profoundly important to do so. As the novelist George Orwell once observed, he who controls the present controls the past, and he who controls the past controls the future.
In his brilliant book Market Education: The Unknown History, Andrew Coulson describes how the Common School movement of the mid-19th century grew out of philanthropic beginnings. So called “free schools” were among a diverse range of education options that met the needs of most families. In cities they supplemented an established network of independent education providers. Competition kept fees low and quality high, since parents would not voluntarily patronize a teacher they thought was unfit or a school they thought was wasteful or overpriced. Rural areas had small, semi-public “district” schools where a mix of tuition and local taxes let the poorest students attend for free.
Historian Robert Seybolt describes how what had begun as fairly basic instruction quickly evolved into more serious academic training: “Popular demands, and the element of competition, forced [educators] not only to add new courses of instruction, but constantly to improve their methods and techniques of instruction.” Trend lines, starting from the mid-18th century in America, show that literacy rates—for both men and women, in both the North and South—were on the rise. By 1852, the year Massachusetts instituted mandatory schooling, literacy in that state stood at 98 percent. Even decades earlier Alexis de Tocqueville observed that it was rare to find a New Englander who had not received elementary education and who was not well-versed in the history and Constitution of the United States.
Competition, choices, charity, private and semi-public institutions—the mix may have worked, but it was messy. And with waves of new immigrants arriving in the mid-19th century, it was about to get a lot messier. As impoverished newcomers poured into the cities, the philanthropic “free schools” expanded and multiplied. These charitable efforts were motivated by compassion—and concern. The cultures, and especially the Catholicism, of the new immigrant arrivals fed the fears and prejudices of America’s Protestant majority.
Many of the free schools saw their role as combatting this “ignorance and vice” through literacy and moral instruction, a function increasingly sanctioned by state governments in the form of subsidies to sponsor philanthropic societies. But as ethnic tensions continued to mount, reformers argued that far more aggressive and comprehensive measures were required. There was resistance, not just from immigrants but from Americans who remembered why they had fought a war of independence from government control less than a century before. Ironically, it was the education subcommittee of the Massachusetts legislature that warned:
The establishment of the Board of Education seems to be the commencement of a system of centralization and monopoly of power in a few hands, contrary, in every respect, to the true spirit of democratic institutions; and which, unless speedily checked, may lead to dangerous results.
Horace Mann dismissed such critics as “vandals and bigots,” and ultimately he prevailed, becoming the first secretary of the first state board of education in Massachusetts, and introducing the first state-run system in 1852. Within 30 years, every Northern state had followed suit, and while only two states had mandatory attendance laws before the Civil War, most others passed such laws after Reconstruction.
I am, by necessity, simplifying and summarizing a lot of very complex history. But, given the tremendous hopes and resources that have been invested in public education, and given the equally tremendous disappointments and challenges we are grappling with in the 21st century, we might want to ask ourselves whether there was any wisdom in the early warnings Horace Mann dismissed.
Today, many reasonable people do fear that education has become too centralized and that powerful interests block real reform. Many parents do wish that more power were in their hands, not the “few hands,” and that they could make meaningful choices about their child’s education. Even those who argue against parental choice use terms that vindicate those who first warned of an education monopoly.
Choice is a distraction, we are told, because 90 percent of all students are in the public system.
True enough. But government education is only able to retain a 90 percent market share as a monopoly, subsidized by and enforced by every level of state authority.
Doesn’t it strike anyone as strange that the same government that employs thousands of bureaucrats to monitor and prosecute so-called private “monopolies” protects its own monopoly in education? And stranger still, that nearly everyone accepts this state of affairs as normal—as something that has always been and must always be?
I don’t, Rand didn’t, and neither does our incoming Secretary of Education. Betsy DeVos. This is a reason to rejoice. To be objective, one must have perspective. It took guts to appoint DeVos, and President Trump deserves credit for the courageous choice -- and DeVos deserves our support for the fierce battles ahead.
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.