The hearings on the nomination of Betsy DeVos as the next U.S. secretary of education are shaping up to be an angry grudge match between the proponents of school choice, for which the Michigan billionaire and President-elect Donald Trump have been fierce advocates, and the defenders of traditional public-school organization and funding, including teachers’ unions.
But looking beyond that could reveal whether DeVos has the ability to shift from her historical role as a relentless advocate for policies and candidates consistent with her philosophical views to a new emphasis on effectively executing the best policies for students. To date, DeVos’s activities have primarily been as a lobbyist through the organization she founded, the nonprofit American Federation for Children. The organization is committed to “creating an education revolution” by promoting vouchers, charter schools, and other “pro-choice” initiatives at the state level.
Success as education secretary depends not only on the ability to manage the sprawling education bureaucracy but also on one’s flexibility in responding to the practical constraints he or she will inevitably confront when attempting to apply broad theories. If DeVos’s overall educational political theory is not a legitimate source of opposition, an unwillingness to modify tactics in the face of new facts is. In the educational domain, intense emotions have led well-intentioned partisans on all sides to doggedly pursue ideologically driven strategies with disastrous results. This phenomenon has played out repeatedly in not just the public sector, but in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors as well. Significant evidence suggests that DeVos shares this tendency. Indeed, in all three domains—public, for-profit, and nonprofit—critics argue that DeVos has demonstrated a propensity for allowing ideology to trump effectiveness.