Vouchers Alone Won't Enable DeVos to Reform U.S. Education

Hard at work already.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Department of Education is one of the lesser federal bureaucracies, in both importance and budget, and Betsy DeVos is hardly the ideal choice to lead it. Nonetheless, having barely survived a contentious confirmation hearing, it's possible for her to channel her enthusiasms to more productive and unifying ends.

What really generated the ire of DeVos's opponents was her advocacy of school vouchers, money that follows a child outside the traditional public-school system to independent schools -- religious or secular, for-profit or non-. She is fully behind President Donald Trump's proposed $20 billion federal voucher plan, which asks the states to chip in a whopping $110 billion of their own.

But there are far more efficient ways to encourage choice and raise quality than vouchers -- which are often too small to really allow students to escape from dismal schools -- such as well-managed charter schools. The federal government could also do more to encourage districts to close failing schools and eliminate bad teachers. And it would be nice if DeVos could rediscover her fondness for the Common Core standards and tests established by state governors and education chiefs that allow for an apples-to-apples comparison of student performance and improvement.

DeVos's strong support for religious-based schools may not be widely shared. But her philosophy, as expressed in her hearings, is by no means radical: using increased school choice to help close the achievement gap between rich and poor, minority and white. She may also provide a useful counterbalance to teachers unions more concerned with saving the jobs of unqualified and uncaring members than with improving student learning.

Washington doesn't have the money or power to implement policy -- it provides $120 billion of the $1 trillion spent each year in the U.S. on education. So most of DeVos's influence will come from her ability to set the agenda and nudge states and localities in the right direction. And as her predecessors showed, with laws and initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, it's possible to use that power in a constructive way.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.