Sowell on DeVos

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Thomas Sowell has come out of retirement to express his support for Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Of all Trump's cabinet picks so far, she has faced the fiercest opposition in the Senate, where there is a 50-50 stalemate. Calling the DeVos nomination both a once-in-a-generation opportunity for educational reform and a major threat to teachers' unions, Sowell elaborates:

[DeVos] has, for more than 20 years, been promoting programs, laws and policies that enable parents to choose which schools their children will attend -- whether these are charter schools, voucher schools or parochial schools.

Some of these charter schools -- especially those in the chain of the Success Academy schools and the chain of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools -- operate in low-income, minority neighborhoods in the inner-cities, and turn out graduates who can match the educational performances of students in affluent suburbs. What is even more remarkable, these charter schools are often housed in the very same buildings, in the very same ghettoes, where students in the regular public schools fail to learn even the basics in English or math.

You and I may think this is great. But, to the teachers' unions, such charter schools are a major threat to their members' jobs -- and ultimately to the unions' power or existence.

If parents have a choice of where to send their children, many of those parents are not likely to send them to failing public schools, when there are alternative schools available that equip those youngsters with an education that can open the way to a far better future for them. [bold added]
DeVos might be a dream candidate for this post, if (a) she were a principled advocate of laissez-faire, or (b) she were nominated by such a president, who would make sure her reforms would most likely lead to the abolishment of government schools. Neither is the case and, on top of that, DeVos, who explicitly regards her activism as as a means to "advance God's Kingdom," wants religious schools to be eligible for vouchers.

Plainly, on the grounds of separation of religion and state, these schools shouldn't be eligible, and including them in a voucher program (especially outside the explicit context of privatizing education) reinforces the dangerous precedent of government funding of religious activity set by Bush-Obama's "faith-based initiatives." That said, the mind-killing death grip the unions have on (what should be) education means, in light of Sowell's arguments (and the public not being ready for privatization), that we can't necessarily rule her out on that basis. Many parochial schools produce children better able to think than do the public schools. (And many parents would send their children to them, anyway. Note that this is not the same thing as the government sending their kids to them at the expense of others. The fact that people can misuse their freedom does not in any way justify the government funding or preventing such choices.) I am inclined to favor her nomination with eyes open as a means of reining back the power of the teachers' unions and freeing some young minds in the process.

This is not a firm opinion, but DeVos may well be the best selection we can hope for in some time. Regardless, religious conservatives should not be confused with capitalists, and they have repeatedly shown themselves to be just as eager to dine at the trough of government loot as their fellow altruist-collectivists on the left. I would be pleasantly surprised to see her appointment bring us breathing room, but I don't expect much more. And it could well backfire.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

Ugh, religious school vouchers?

So, who wants to form the New Reformed School of Our Lord Satan with me?

Kyle Haight said...

I'm not sure I agree that the separation of church and state requires prohibiting religious schools from participation in school choice programs. My understanding of church/state separation is that the government should not treat religion specially, i.e. that the government should take a position of intellectual neutrality. Religion should receive neither special privileges nor special penalties.

Barring a religious school from participation in a government program that is open to schools operating under a variety of other intellectual viewpoints would violate church/state separation by treating religious belief as significant to government policy, but in a negative way.

That said, there is a legitimate question to be asked about what is required to qualify as a school at all, as opposed to a religious indoctrination center for children. In the end, though, I suspect this is one of those intractable problems that arises whenever government money is injected into the intellectual realm.

Gus Van Horn said...

Jenn and Kyle,

You both touch on the same problem, which Kyle comes closest to stating explicitly, when he notes that, "[T]his is one of those intractable problems that arises whenever government money is injected into the intellectual realm."

Both Jenn's facetious suggestion and Kyle's question about the difference between an actual school and a religious (or other) indoctrination center helped jog my memory about (a) a proposal that the government license journalists and (b) various examples of censorship caused by the government being in the business of professional licensing. The thing that makes government promoting religion wrong is the same thing that makes it serving as an arbiter of truth wrong: It forces individuals to abide by the conclusions of others, in direct contradiction to the government's proper purpose. So, yes, so long as the government is running schools (or saying how they should be run), this problem will crop up.

And, I think this is where I was heading when I thought about this nomination fight this morning: DeVos would add greater freedom to a field of endeavor starved of it, and the objection over her religious bent from the left is a red herring. (It's not as if public schools aren'tindoctrination centers.) Yes, it disgusts me that many advocates of vouchers merely want government funding for religious schools, but maybe that's a problem inherent in the government being involved in education. So we have to be aware of it, and take the opportunity to say something like, "And this is why we need more freedom in education, and not less.

Thanks for the comments.