DeVos’ dedication to charter schools is deeply American
Shane M. Goodridge Guest Columnist
The Herald Sun

February 12, 2017

DURHAM-I have been teaching courses centered on American education history-school choice in particular-for almost five years at Duke University. Few things have surprised me as much as the level of vitriol a discussion of the charter school movement generates in almost any setting.

For those who don’t spend their time mulling over education policy, charter schools are publicly funded schools of choice that are often designed to emphasize academic or cultural themes; these schools are created to reflect the unique needs of the communities in which they are nested. Recently, a handful of former students stopped me on my way across the quad, and the conversation quickly turned to the nomination of Betsy DeVos, a well¬-known charter school enthusiast, for Secretary of Education.

They railed that, if confirmed, DeVos would launch an al l¬out assault on public education through the widespread expansion of charter schools, while, simultaneously, working to dismantle traditional public education. This, they reasoned, was simply un-¬American. Tuesday, by the narrowest possible margin, DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education, resulting in a divisive administration becoming even more so.

I’m not heartened by DeVos’ grasp of the finer points of American education policy; however, this particular handwringing over charter schools is one I find uniquely puzzling.

In a society that becomes increasingly divisive with each succeeding electoral cycle, ideological factions clash over whose vision for the republic is more “American.” In many policy contexts, the rancor that arises from this question does more to obfuscate than clarify.

Fortunately, in the case of charter schools, I think we can clear away just enough trees to catch a glimpse of the forest! While DeVos’ competency is underwhelming as the next Secretary of Education, her devotion to charter schools is not “un¬American.” In fact, I would argue just the opposite.

Starting almost immediately, the early years of the republic shaped the development of American education in surprising ways. As the young nation emerged from its revolution battered and factionalized, the classic liberal philosophy that moved the colonists to wage a war for independence was compromised in favor of a civic pragmatism.

To survive ¬¬ never mind thrive ¬¬ American policy makers embarked on a mission of social engineering in the form of compulsory education. The journey to the common school was undertaken decades before the celebrated appearance of Horace Mann. American founder Benjamin Rush, an early architect of American schooling, felt a common education was needed to “render the mass of the people more homogenous” and thus, one imagines, more governable. This of course involved minimizing the transmission of values not endorsed by the state.

As it goes, this was all well enough, and makes a certain amount of sense ¬¬ at some point, the poetry of revolution had to give way to the prose of governing ¬¬ but aside from being counter-intuitive for a nation baptized in natural rights, common education was intended for whites only.

Throughout the American experience, from cycles of rejection and cruelty following the Civil War, through Reconstruction and onto the horrors of the Plessy era, communities of African¬ Americans experienced little agency by way of the common school experience. Even the Brown decision, while outlawing state-¬sponsored segregation, did little to enhance educational equity. It was Polly Williams and the advent of the 1990 Milwaukee school voucher program, responding to the dismal conditions in Milwaukee’s public schools, that provided the gateway for the inaugural charter school legislation in Minnesota in 1991, and a way forward for minority students and their families.

The charter school model resonates with the historical DNA of the republic. Families being able to choose schools based on their children’s unique needs as opposed to being sorted into a box like so many identical eggs, feels…well… it feels American.

As our population becomes increasingly diverse and families nurse unique normative values, these schools will become increasingly popular. Conceptually, charter schools work to return equilibrium to the relationship between the individual and the state. People may have good faith objections to the movement’s ability to improve learning outcomes for children ¬¬ that’s certainly fair game ¬¬ but that doesn’t make the movement un-American.

Really, the only way you can sustain an argument that charter schools are un-American is to do away with the ethos of the founding all together, and interpret the American experience from 1840 on; then, I suppose, you have a case.

Shane Goodridge is assistant dean of curriculum and course development for Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. He has taught educational policy courses in the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Program in Education.