Anti-DeVos protest in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 29, 2017. Photo by Ted Eytan.
The battle over Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education makes me think of garbage. Not metaphorical garbage or political garbage, but actual household trash.
At the home in suburban New York where I lived for 20 years, municipal sanitation workers arrive on Mondays and Thursdays. On Monday they take away the regular trash, while Thursday is reserved for recycling pickup. I had to warehouse any regular garbage that was on hand until the following Monday – even longer if I happened to go away for a weekend or if that next Monday happened to be a holiday. I was not a fan of this arrangement, but the local raccoons didn’t mind.
At my house in Florida, trash is also picked up on Mondays and Thursdays. Although I pay for the service through my property taxes, the workers who drive up to my door are employees of a private company hired by the county. They take my household garbage on both Monday and Thursday, and the recycling is removed on Thursday as well.
Can you guess which arrangement I prefer? Of course you can. Twice-a-week pickup beats once-a-week, especially when we are talking about Florida garbage in Florida heat. And although the amount of my taxes going to trash pickup in New York was opaque (unlike Florida, where it is separately stated on my tax bill), I feel confident in assuming that I actually paid more in the North for less service.
It doesn’t matter one whit to me whether the employees who pick up my trash in either location work in the public sector or the private sector. I just want the best value for the taxes I pay to make the garbage go where it needs to go.
This brings us to the DeVos nomination, which hangs on a knife-edge and will most likely be decided on a tie-breaking Senate vote by Vice President Mike Pence.
DeVos is a longtime Republican activist and a vocal advocate of charter schools and school vouchers. To her opponents, this makes her an enemy of public education – meaning education conducted in schools that are publicly owned, publicly run, and staffed (in the great majority of cases) by unionized public sector employees.
All of which should make no difference whatsoever to students, their parents and taxpayers like me who pay to educate those students.
What I care about, and what any rational taxpaying citizen (outside the public education industry) ought to care about, is how to get the best education for the greatest number of students for a given amount of money. To DeVos and her supporters, this means allowing parents to choose among traditional public schools, publicly financed charter schools and private schools whose tuition can be paid via public vouchers.
This arrangement is anathema to public school administrators, teachers unions and their Democratic Party allies. They don’t like the diversion of resources from the systems they dominate. They emphasize what they see as equity over efficiency, and they have devoted the confirmation process to fertilizing an “AstroTurf” (as opposed to genuine grass-roots) campaign to try to pick up three critical Republican votes to keep DeVos out of the Trump administration cabinet.
They have apparently succeeded in getting two of those votes. Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (who won her last campaign as a write-in candidate with critical support from teachers) and Susan Collins of Maine have come out in opposition to DeVos’ appointment. But as the Senate entered into what Democrats promised would be an all-night debate yesterday, the essential third vote was not in evidence.
Voters have repeatedly said they want change. I cannot imagine anyone who should want it more or could deserve it more than students in public school districts that don’t deliver the quality education they need to have a decent shot at success in later life. A good place to start is by changing what we mean by the term “public education.” The phrase ought to reflect who pays for it, not who delivers it. With that as the starting point, we can focus on results and ignore the garbage.