“What we need most is to listen and understand one another instead of circling the wagons into our own echo chambers. The Kennedy School is all about understanding differences and building bridges.”
That was how Archon Fung, Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, kicked off a discussion with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Alas, there was little listening and understanding from that point forward. Frederick M. Hess describes the scene:
Little of what DeVos said, however, seemed to matter to her “academic” audience, a large swath of which seemed more concerned with its antics than with listening — much less with engaging in any semblance of scholarly give and take. Students stood, raising fists and holding banners reading “White Supremacist” and “Our Students Are Not 4 Sale!” Perhaps fearing that their ratty signage had proven insufficient, as DeVos exited the stage, students chanted, “What does white supremacy look like? That’s what white supremacy looks like!”
Sadly, the mere fact that a conservative speaker was allowed to finish their remarks without having to be hurriedly shuffled offstage at threat of violence, or preempted from speaking at all because of concerns over their safety, is progress. But it’s not good enough. Higher education should involve a thorough examination of ideas, something that can only happen if more than one side of an argument is heard, understood and questioned. That simply isn’t possible when the opening salvo of any debate is a spurious accusation of racism.
For shame. Secretary DeVos’ comments were not anything close to a partisan screed, but instead acknowledged the inherent complexity of the problem. She spoke about empowering parents to find the right educational options for their child; the need to focus on and invest in children, not in an amorphous, unaccountable “system,” and her desire to break down the false dichotomy that forces people to be either for or against public education.
“Education is not a binary choice. Being for equal access and opportunity—being for choice—is not being against anything,” DeVos said.
“When you chose to attend Harvard, did anyone suggest you were against public universities? No, you and your family sat down and figured out which education environment would be the best fit for you. You compared options, and made an informed decision,” she continued. “No one seems to criticize that choice. No one thinks choice in higher education is wrong. So why is it wrong in elementary, middle, or high school?”
It’s not wrong. But opponents of school choice have successfully convinced many that K-12 education is a zero sum game. That public schools can only win if other educational options lose. In this world it is maintenance of institutions that is important, regardless of the quality of the education they are providing, rather than the outcomes of the students under their care. As DeVos argues, that’s fundamentally backwards.
“Education is an investment in individual students, and that’s why funding and focus should follow the student, not the other way around,” she argued.
“The future of choice lies in caring less about the word that comes before “school” and more about the individuals students that “school” seeks to serve.”
It was an idea that should have invited debate, but the protesters prevented students from meeting her halfway. Instead, she was labeled a “white supremacist,” which meant her ideas weren’t worth listening to, much less responding to. And for what? Because the hecklers disagree with her views on education policy?
If so, there is a tremendous irony in their rote accusations given the track record of school choice. These types of reforms have consistently demonstrated their ability to provide expanded opportunity and better outcomes for poor and minority children. Secretary DeVos even mentioned new research into Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship programs, which provides low-income parents with increased educational options. It found that participation in the program significantly increased the college attendance rate for these students. This builds upon research demonstrating that the state’s charter-school students—and especially minority students—perform better on standardized testing than their peers at public schools.
Addressing disparities in academic outcomes should absolutely be a topic of conversation when it comes to education policy. If anything, the persistent gap demonstrates a foundational flaw in our current K-12 system that must be fixed. But there is a marked difference between tossing out baseless epithets and actively engaging in a debate over the best policy path. It’s sad that DeVos’ speech was treated by a contingent of students as an opportunity for partisan sloganeering rather than a chance for substantive discussion. Unfortunately, that seems to be the reality for conservatives on college campuses these days.
Photo Credit: MichaelVadon