What's been predicted for the past week or so has now occurred: Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as Secretary of Education by a 51-50 vote, with Vice President Mike Pence called upon to cast the tie-breaking vote. Not a single Democrat broke ranks. Apparently this is the first time in history that a Vice President was called upon to cast a tie-breaking vote for the confirmation of a cabinet secretary.
Obviously, defeat of DeVos was a top priority for the teachers unions, and they pulled out all the stops. DeVos has devoted much of her life to the cause of school choice, particularly to giving poor and minority children the ability to escape failing unionized public schools. Fox News yesterday described the "furious push" to find one more Republican to vote against DeVos and defeat the nomination. Forbes on January 17 accurately identified DeVos as "public enemy number one" with the teachers unions.
The guiding theme of the anti-DeVos campaign has been that she has "used her money, power and influence to destroy public education. . . . ," (per "education activist" Marie Corfield, quoted in the Forbes piece). Funny, but when I was a kid, the inner city public schools in essentially all major cities were already a disaster -- and that was well before DeVos started her advocacy.
Well, you don't have to look very far, or think very hard, to understand what this is all about. School choice absolutely does pose an existential threat to the teachers unions. When there is educational choice, that means charter schools and private schools, most of which are non-union. The charter and private schools can out-perform the traditional public schools precisely because they can institute teacher evaluations, pay differentials and termination of under-achieving teachers -- all things that are verboten in the unionized schools. So as soon as the alternatives are available, parents move their kids away from the traditional schools and into the alternatives.
According to a UFT dues schedule here, each unionized teacher means about $1300 - 1400 in dues revenue per year to the union. With about 3 million K-12 teachers in public schools, that means that each 1% loss in market share costs the teachers unions some $40 million in dues revenue per year. Real money. If public school alternatives suddenly went from their current market share of about 7% to more like 20%, we could be talking about a loss of multiple hundred million dollars per year for the teachers unions. And, of course, the teachers unions are the number one funders of the Democratic Party and its candidates.
Somehow, few seem to comment on the fundamental immorality of denying school choice to poor and minority kids in order to keep open the taxpayer money spigot for the teachers unions and the Democratic Party. An exception is David Harsanyi. His January 22 piece at the Patriot Post is headlined "Dem's Fight Against School Choice Is Immoral"; sub-headline: "Teachers unions are the only organizations that openly support segregated schools." Excerpt:
Democrats often tell us that racism is one of the most pressing problems in America. And yet, few things have hurt African-Americans more over the past 40 years than inner-city public school systems. If [former] President Obama is correct and educational attainment is the key to breaking out of a lower economic stratum, then no institution is driving inequality quite as effectively as public schools. Actually, teachers unions are the only organizations in America that openly support segregated schools. In districts across the country — even ones in cities with some form of limited movement for kids — poor parents, typically those who are black or Hispanic, are forced to enroll their kids in underperforming schools when there are good ones nearby, sometimes just blocks away. The National Education Association spent $23 million during the last election cycle alone to elect politicians to keep low-income Americans right where they are.
I would only comment that that $23 million from the NEA in the last cycle is but a small part of the total value of teachers union cash and in-kind contributions to the Democratic Party, its allies, and its candidates. First, in addition to the NEA there are the UFT and various other independent teachers unions. Then there are contributions to various PACs, Super-PACs, and "issue advocacy" organizations. Then there are the in-kind efforts: phone banks, mailings, voter cards, driving people to the polls. A fair estimate of the total value of the cash and in-kind contributions of teachers unions on behalf of the Democratic Party, allied groups, and candidates in an election cycle is a minimum of $200 million.
So, poor and minority kids and your parents, face the facts: you contribute pennies per election cycle to the Democratic Party and its candidates, and the teachers unions contribute hundreds of millions of dollars. The Dems know where their bread is buttered, and it's not by you. Not one single one of them will stand up for you when it counts.
Nick Gillespie at Reason today has an excellent round-up of the results of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) by reputable researchers as to whether school choice, particularly charter schools, improves student performance. Here are his bullet points with embedded links:
In Boston, a team of researchers from MIT, Harvard, Duke, and the University of Michigan, conducted a RCT and found:: "The charter school effects reported here are therefore large enough to reduce the black-white reading gap in middle school by two-thirds."
A RCT of charter schools in New York City by a Stanford researcher found an even larger effect: "On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the 'Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap' in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English."
The same Stanford researcher conducted an RCT of charter schools in Chicago and found: "students in charter schools outperformed a comparable group of lotteried-out students who remained in regular Chicago public schools by 5 to 6 percentile points in math and about 5 percentile points in reading…. To put the gains in perspective, it may help to know that 5 to 6 percentile points is just under half of the gap between the average disadvantaged, minority student in Chicago public schools and the average middle-income, nonminority student in a suburban district."
And the last RCT was a national study conducted by researchers at Mathematica for the US Department of Education. It found significant gains for disadvantaged students in charter schools but the opposite for wealthy suburban students in charter schools. They could not determine why the benefits of charters were found only in urban, disadvantaged settings, but their findings are consistent with the three other RCTs that found significant achievement gains for charter students in Boston, Chicago, and New York City.
I wouldn't expect much to change over night now that DeVos is Education Secretary. Most of the federal funding to K-12 schools is pre-allocated by appropriation bills and funding formulas, and the Education Secretary can't just start moving money around tomorrow. But the upcoming budget (for the next fiscal year starting in October) can start moving things around, including providing strong funding (or de-funding) incentives for states and districts that variously encourage or discourage school choice. Expect the teachers unions to fight to the death for every inch of turf. But this could be the beginning of a long, slow, painful decline.