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Acton Commentary

The DeVos budget: Toward a new paradigm of public education

The Trump Administration and Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have submitted their attention-getting budget request.  Consistent with the credo of budget balancers, the proposed allocation reduces the current budget of $68.2 billion by about $9 billion.  In keeping with DeVos’s  career and reputation, the budget includes a relatively small allotment of $400 million to support school choice for low income children and charter schools.  The idea is that this amount would grow in succeeding years and perhaps supersede other approaches to improving education in the United States.

Both facts, the lower amount of funding and the dollars for school choice, highlight concerns raised by DeVos’s detractors.  When she was nominated, public education advocates complained that her status as a school choice advocate is at odds with the mission of the Department of Education.  If school choice effectively functions as a standing critique of public education as well as being a potential solution to problems evident in the current system, how can public school advocates ever approve of an appointee like Betsy DeVos?

That question leads to others. What is the mission of the Department of Education?  And if that mission is defined as advancing public education in the United States in a particular way, then does any elected president have the right to appoint a reformer who may alter the mission or bring a substantially new philosophy of how it might be achieved?  Unless we answer those questions in the negative, then we elevate a particular vision of public school education to the level of a substantive right required by the constitution.  Worse, we would foreclose any real chance of innovation and reform.  

The public school establishment has consistently fought for greater funding and against the expansion of school choice

We tend to worry about interest group capture of various federal agencies.  For example, we hear about the farm lobby capturing the Department of Agriculture and defense contractors gaining excessive influence in the Pentagon.  The action of “iron triangles” made up of interest groups, government agencies, and congressional committees has long been observed and commented upon by political and economic scholars.  But it is rare to see similar analyses focused on the power that groups such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have over the department that was promised to the teachers’ unions (and delivered) by Jimmy Carter after his election to the White House in 1976.  The conflict is obvious.  A Department of Education run largely on the priorities of the public school teachers’ unions is unlikely to look kindly upon any attempt to break the monopoly, even on the fringes.  And that is exactly what we have seen.  The public school establishment has consistently fought for greater funding and against the expansion of school choice.  

In addition to the rational self-interest of public education associations, we should also consider John Stuart Mill’s classic argument against public school monopolies.  Mill thought that it might be wise for governments to provide funding for education, but also that there is too much risk inherent in allowing the government to operate schools.  The temptation to use schools for purposes of indoctrination would be too great.  Mill was hardly in sympathy with conservative Christians.  Rather, he was simply realistic about incentives and institutions.  

Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education represents an attempt by the White House to push back against the reigning paradigm in two ways.  First, the reduction of $9 billion in the proposal from last year’s appropriation runs against the idea that improving public education necessarily entails spending ever larger amounts.  Second, the roughly $400 million requested in the new budget for school choice for low income children and for charter schools (a tiny proportion of the discretionary budget), supports competition as a method of increasing quality in schools.

The mistake is to assume that school choice can’t be part of improving public education

I predict that much of the commentary on the DeVos budget will follow the lines suggested by a recent U.S. News and World Report piece insisting that the department should “invest in public education” rather than “dismantling it” and “ensure that public money goes to public schools.”  But this kind of argument is of a piece with the idea that education can only be improved by ever increasing appropriations and funneling grants to government-owned, government-operated schools.  The mistake is to assume that school choice can’t be part of improving public education.  In order to escape the frozen outlines of establishment thinking, though, we have to realize that educating the public doesn’t have to mean blocking out competition.  Instead, competition can be part of how we make sure we have a republic of educated citizens and one that may better protect freedom of thought.


Image used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license (CC BY 2.0). 


Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in Religion & Politics at the Acton Institute.  He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.