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Juan Williams: Big questions over Trump's pick for schools

Juan Williams: Big questions over Trump's pick for schools
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Is President-elect Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education a Christmas present for America’s public schools or shiny wrapping paper on a lump of coal?

A teacher from Iowa recently wrote an open letter to DeVos in which he pointed out that she never attended public school, nor has she any experience as a teacher, nor has she studied school curriculum.

Patrick Kearney, the teacher whose letter was published in the Huffington Post, tellingly pointed out that, in DeVos’s home state of Michigan, “the charter schools you lobby for aren’t really achieving any better than their public counterparts.”

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Stephen Henderson, a charter school supporter who is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, came to a similar conclusion about DeVos:

“For 20 years, the lobby her family bankrolls has propped up the billion-dollar charter school industry and insulated it from commonsense oversight, even as charter schools [in Michigan] repeatedly failed to deliver on their promises to parents and children.”

DeVos response to her critics came in a November tweet: “The status quo in [education] is not acceptable.”

At a December Michigan rally with Trump, she sharpened her point: “For me it’s simple: I trust parents.” By that she meant she does not trust teachers’ unions, who have a history of looking out for their dues-paying members first — not students.

I hear these political arguments. But my life experience with public schools speaks more loudly. 

As black parents and Democrats, my wife and I paid taxes for public schools but did not risk sending our three children to troubled public schools in Washington during the ‘80s and ‘90s. We now have three grandchildren who are doing very well at one of the city’s charter schools. That’s why I am a supporter of charters.

On this point, I find myself aligned with Trump supporters who backed him because they thought he was going to be the “great disruptor,” the man to “shake things up.”

Trump Senior Adviser Kellyanne Conway tweeted last week, “School choice among the most exciting aspects of a @realDonaldTrump presidency, & among the most under-appreciated messages of his campaign.” 

To me, no area of public policy is more in need of positive disruption than a public education system that is condemning too many children, especially black and Latino children, to live in poverty because they are not equipped with a good education. 

Earlier this month, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its highly-regarded comparison of student performance in science, reading and math among 35 industrialized nations. The 2015 study ranked the United States 19th in science, 20th in reading and 31st in math.

This is not acceptable.

President Obama and his first Education Secretary Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanTrump administration is putting profits over students Chicago to make future plans a graduation requirement: report Top Education official resigned over dispute with DeVos: report MORE deserve credit for raising the high school graduation rate to an all-time high of 83 percent in 2015. This was the fifth consecutive year where this important metric hit a record-breaking high.

However, as the OECD study shows, the value of a U.S. public high school diploma is in question because too many high schools are “diploma mills.” They award diplomas without giving students the skills they need.

The critical need in American education is for public schools, whether in their traditional form or as charters, to produce better outcomes for all children.

On that score, the most compelling criticism of DeVos is that the Michigan charter schools she helped to produce have underperformed compared to the nation’s other charters and even some public schools.

The root of the failure of many Michigan’s charter schools can be traced to a lack of oversight and accountability. DeVos opposed a Michigan law requiring oversight of charters. Gary Naeyaert, excutive director of a lobbying group started by DeVos, argues that failing public schools face no consequences and it is a double-standard to impose added burdens on charter schools.

But for someone who claims to be looking out for parents and students, why stand in the way of laws that allow parents to judge the quality of charters? 

The head of the nation’s biggest teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, labeled DeVos as simply an “anti-public education nominee.”

And Lily E. Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, said it is necessary to stand against DeVos to oppose “a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education.”

At her confirmation hearings, the critical question for DeVos will be whether she is just a rigid right-wing ideologue or sufficiently flexible to learn from the mistakes she made in Michigan. 

If she is serious about getting the best results for students, she will have helping hands from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Tennessee Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Trump health chief backs CDC research on gun violence | GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix | Groups sue over cuts to teen pregnancy program GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix 30 million people will experience eating disorders — the CDC needs to help MORE will remain chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee. And North Carolina Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxHouse Dems call for first Education Committee hearing on school shootings since Sandy Hook House Oversight Committee opens probe into sexual abuse of gymnasts Students drowning in debt bewildered by claims college is a 'hammock' MORE will take over as Chairwoman of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Both Alexander and Foxx have long histories of support for school choice.  

With Trump, DeVos, Alexander and Foxx soon to be in charge of setting federal education policy, this is the best chance for education reform in a generation. 

It is up to all Americans who care about this issue, including Democrats on Capitol Hill and the teachers’ unions, to make sure the GOP does not turn this moment into a Christmas disappointment, another lump of coal for America’s students.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.