Desks in a classroom.
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With cabinet choice, Trump readies fight with public schools

When it comes to choosing the personnel for his top administrative posts, Donald Trump’s selections have thus far fallen into two broad categories: the conventionally wrong and the unconventionally wrong.

The latter is made up of people who aren’t just ill-suited to lead a cabinet agency, but who are also ridiculous political personalities who have no business even being considered for important federal responsibilities. Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr., for example, said Donald Trump offered him the job of Education Secretary, which the right-wing Virginian turned down for personal reasons. Eyeing Falwell for such a post is unconventionally wrong.

Betsy DeVos, apparently Trump’s second choice for the Department of Education, is merely conventionally wrong.
President-elect Donald Trump picked Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary Wednesday, putting an outspoken advocate of charter schools and school vouchers in America’s top education post. […]

DeVos, a 58-year-old billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, leads the American Federation for Children, which promotes charter school education. She’s married to Dick DeVos, an heir to the Amway fortune, and is the sister to Erik Prince, founder of notorious government-contracted security company Blackwater, now known as Academi.
I don’t mean “conventional” as a compliment. DeVos, a Republican mega-donor, is a far-right ideologue with misguided ideas who’ll very likely do a bad job. But she’s also very much in line with expectations in a Trump/Pence team – and it’s easy to imagine a President Kasich, Cruz, Bush, or Rubio picking the exact same person for the exact same job.

That is, however, cold comfort when it comes public policy. DeVos has been a fierce opponent of public education, which is why Trump choosing her for Secretary of Education suggests the incoming Republican administration is planning a pretty aggressive confrontation with public schools.

Indeed, DeVos’ record is long and unambiguous. The Michigan Republican has spent millions from her family’s Amway fortune to promote school vouchers as part of a campaign to privatize public education. The New York Times reported the other day:
It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos, Donald J. Trump’s pick as the cabinet secretary overseeing the nation’s education system.

For nearly 30 years, as a philanthropist, activist and Republican fund-raiser, she has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and tried to strip teacher unions of their influence. […]

Ms. DeVos’s efforts to expand educational opportunity in her home state of Michigan and across the country have focused little on existing public schools, and almost entirely on establishing newer, more entrepreneurial models to compete with traditional schools for students and money. Her donations and advocacy go almost entirely toward groups seeking to move students and money away from what Mr. Trump calls “failing government schools.”
In September, Trump announced his enthusiastic support for school vouchers – a system that forces taxpayers to finance the tuition for students at parochial and other private schools – and the selection of DeVos effectively throws down the gauntlet, letting education proponents know that a major fight over public schools’ future is on the way.

Her confirmation hearings should offer an interesting opportunity for debate, not only because DeVos’ voucher crusade will make her controversial, but also because she was one of the architects of Detroit’s charter-school experiment – which produced disastrous results.

This is, incidentally, DeVos’ only relevant experience when it comes to policymaking. She’s never held public office at any level.

Postscript: New York’s Ed Kilgore raised a good point the other day: “Had Trump gone with an education reformer more genuinely interested in public education … he might have split Democrats to some extent and at least shown some interest in fixing rather than killing public schools.”

It’s an important angle that’s easy to overlook. There are genuine disagreements among Democrats about how and whether to reform public education, and Trump could have exacerbated those divisions in ways that would be politically beneficial to his White House. But he did the opposite, picking an Education Secretary who has crusaded against public schools – making it easy for Democrats and progressive activists to overlook their own differences and unite in opposition to Trump’s privatization plans.