Private Means to a Public Good

The usual suspects — teachers’ unions, “public school advocates” and liberal Democrats — have voiced opposition to the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as President Trump’s Secretary of Education.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, described Ms. DeVos as “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education.”

The ultimate “enemy,” of course, as Ms. Weingarten and other public school partisans see it, is the idea of ending the public school system’s monopoly on education tax dollars and allowing parents to choose what sort of schools their children attend.

In Michigan, for years, Ms. DeVos advocated for publicly funded but privately administered charter schools, and for school vouchers, which families can use to attend private schools, including religious ones.

It is the specter of such school choice spreading across the country, aided by federal encouragement or assistance, that so alarms “public school advocates.” They overlook, or choose to ignore, the fact that healthy competition improves all players, that public schools will themselves gain by being incentivized to improve in an educational marketplace with other realistic options for parents.

Also overlooked by those opponents of parental choice is how private schools once served to benefit a segment of the American population that suffered discrimination and deprivation.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, black communities had to create their own schools, as white officials never appropriated public money equitably by race. Some of such “community-controlled” institutions came to be called “Freedom Schools.”

Black civic leaders hired educators who lived in the communities in which they taught, deeply cared for their students and created curricula that reflected the particular needs, interests and culture of the families they served.

Freedom Schools were attended by African Americans, administered by African Americans, and their classes were taught by African Americans. They provided a minority community with the necessary skills to gain meaningful employment and entreé into the professional world.

They were a product of the community they were engineered to serve. Black civic leaders and educators raised money from within their communities and forged alliances with philanthropists and sympathetic whites for further financial support.

Professor of educational history Jon N. Hale described that effort as “private means to create a public good.” It was, he asserts, “an integral part of black education.”

One major enabler of Freedom Schools was Julius Rosenwald, a part-owner and leader of Sears, Roebuck and Company. Over the first decades of the 1900s, his “Rosenwald Fund” improved the education of southern blacks by building some 5,000 schools that serviced minority families.

In the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, the Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling permitting state-sponsored segregation and declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

Over ensuing years, the integration of American public schools proceeded, slowly and in fits. But private schools serving black communities did not disappear.

Neither did the lessons they hold, about the importance of community autonomy and the singular ability that communities have to create schools for their children. “One size fits all” doesn’t work any better in educational policy than it does for shoes.

Recognition of that fact lay behind the Obama administration’s passage of the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which significantly reduced the power of the federal Department of Education and increased funding for private governance of public schools through charter schools.

Our own community’s focus is not on charter schools, which, despite any advantages they may provide, in the end are public schools.

The education policy goal of the Orthodox Jewish community is to provide all parents with true school choice, in the form of educational vouchers that can be used by mothers and fathers to enroll their children in schools that reflect their values.

Rather than portray that ideal as some sort of dangerous social experiment, opponents of school choice would do well to read the early history of American education and learn its lessons. Among them, that self-determination yields quality education, and that it benefits students and society when parents are able to determine the venues and content of their children’s education.

Betsy DeVos is under attack, both by legislators with knee-jerk negative reactions to anyone President Trump proposes for a cabinet position and by those ideologically opposed to school choice. But she is a good choice to head the Education Department. She recognizes what her critics do not, that local control of education and educational choice have benefitted American children in the past, and, if promoted nationwide, can benefit all American children in the future.