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Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools

Betsy DeVos: An Education Leader with One Big Idea

by DAN CURRELL January 26, 2017 4:00 AM

Betsy DeVos is the focused campaigner American schools need. Big institutions aren’t easy to change, and American public education is big: Over 3 million teachers were employed in American public schools in 2016. Walmart, the world’s largest employer, has 1.4 million U.S. employees; the American military has 1.3 million people on active duty. Since American public education needs to change, as everyone seems to agree, what would it take to turn around an institution that’s bigger than Walmart and the U.S. military combined?

A technocrat who knows many things will never turn around a massive organization. Subtlety and complexity are quickly lost in a sea of 3 million people. The focused leader who knows one big thing at least stands a chance of turning around even the largest organization: One big message, driven home relentlessly, can get through.

Betsy DeVos’s one big idea is school choice, and that big idea brings a secondary effect, which is institutional competition. While her big idea is not guaranteed to fix America’s failing public schools, at least it has a chance — and that’s more than can be said for everything else that has been tried.

Indeed, DeVos would be worse off if she had the kind of extensive in-school experience that liberals so angrily attack her for lacking. If she had been a teacher, administrator, and political campaigner, she would be the fox that knows many things. Thankfully, she’s not. Instead she has stuck with one big idea over a long philanthropic career: school choice. She’s the hedgehog that knows one big thing. And this hedgehog is about to wander into a very complicated situation.

The United States has the best public schools in the world. The top public high schools send nearly all their graduates on to college, and many to the most selective colleges. Faculty and parents are dedicated to the educational task, and most students graduate with college credit already in hand. The quality of these schools supports high housing prices within the district, generating property-tax revenues to fund the schools. Even a whiff of weak school performance will draw the ire not only of parents but of every homeowner with something to lose. It’s a positive feedback loop.

We also have the worst public schools in the developed world. In 1,200 American high schools, a third or more of the students don’t graduate. In 2013, 66 percent of U.S. fourth graders and 64 percent of eighth graders could not read at their grade level, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading test. In 2013 the United States spent more per student than all OECD countries except Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland — yet our educational outcomes have hovered around 20th place among OECD’s 34 (now 35) nations. Our worst high schools are essentially prisons with poor security and lots of overhead. Parents see all of this, and most would rather not be trapped

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