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DeVos attackers surrender high ground

The recent appointment of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos exhibited much that is destructive, even demented, about our current political discourse. While objections to her lack of experience in government were understandable, critics went far beyond that to attack her character and question her intentions. She was also subjected to personal threats, both before and after her narrow Senate confirmation.

Conservatives like DeVos who believe that applying conservative principles to education policy would benefit students and the public at large could certainly be mistaken. But we have good reasons for advocating the reforms we do. They stem from personal experience, empirical evidence, and basic insights about why organizations succeed or fail. In our view, those who question our motives are implicitly granting that they can’t refute our arguments. They are surrendering the high ground, not fighting for it.

There are at least three core principles that inspire conservative education reformers: innovation, motivation, and competition. We believe that schools and other providers must be flexible and nimble enough to respond to changing conditions, technologies, and student needs. We believe that both students and educators respond to incentives, just as all human beings do, as long as those incentives are carefully designed and not limited to cash. And we believe that when parents have choices among competing schools, the overall quality of those schools goes up, along with student performance, parental satisfaction, economic opportunity, and societal benefit.

On innovation, many talk a good game. But when it comes right down to it, policymakers all too often think of schools as if they were public utilities, rather than social enterprises that may differ widely in how they are structured and run depending on the backgrounds, personalities, and beliefs of the educators, parents, and students who populate them.

All children deserve the opportunity to attend a great school. But those great schools need not, and probably should not, look the same. Distributing knowledge and skills isn’t like distributing clean water or electrical current. What conservative reformers have in mind is an education system full of bright people trying new things, other bright people emulating successful models, and still other bright people diagnosing failures and coming up with their own models to solve particular problems or serve particular groups of students.

When it comes to motivation, both progressives and conservatives support higher pay to improve teaching. But progressives tend to focus on averages. Conservatives know the empirical evidence, that there doesn’t appear to be a statistically significant relationship between average teacher salaries on the one hand and teacher quality or student performance on the other. They conclude that differentiating pay according to the roles, responsibilities, and demonstrable performance of teachers is the right answer — because motivated teachers may well improve their skills, yes, but also just because it’s more important to retain high-performing teachers than it is to reduce teacher turnover in general.

As for competition, conservatives favor parental choice within school districts as well as offering charter schools, private schools, and homeschools as alternatives. While our impulse does comport with our general market inclinations, it is also based on decades of empirical research that, on balance, confirms the benefits of competition in education.

The most recent peer-reviewed paper I’ve seen concerns public school choice. In some states, there are many more school districts than counties. In others, such as North Carolina, there is either an explicit or implicit preference for larger districts that conform with county boundaries — even though that reduces the options of parents in those communities. In a just-published study, Florida-based economists Katie Sherron and Lawrence Kenny examined these state-by-state differences. They found that “student test scores are higher in larger metro areas that do not require countywide or statewide districts.”

To favor innovation, incentives, and competition does not prevent conservatives from favoring other education policies that progressives also like. Nor does it constitute animus against public education. Accusations to the contrary do Betsy DeVos and other reformers no real harm. They simply embarrass and discredit the accusers.

Editor’s Note: The John William Pope Foundation supports the work of EdNC.

John Hood

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history.