When I was a teenager, I squandered some of the last years I had with good hair by getting really into libertarianism. It was the political equivalent of a sitcom, a tidy philosophy that assured me basically everything was fine with the world as it was and what wasn’t fine could be resolved within 23 minutes. There was comfort in the idea that deregulation would make everything better, in any context, irrespective of the problem at hand. My belief in it didn’t last, though, and the first big crack in the façade came from learning how public schools are funded: unevenly, based on property taxes and state regulations. And if a child’s education was defined by accidents of birth, how could there be anything like a functioning meritocracy?
Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education is, as you’ve likely heard, Betsy DeVos, a conservative activist who has promoted school choice in the form of increased charter and voucher programs. Her appointment makes sense with Trump’s campaign promise to direct $20 billion in federal money to public school alternatives, and though there are a few ways that could play out, if confirmed, DeVos will almost certainly set the national education agenda on a path of privatization, trying to fix the country’s schools through for-profit, charter, and/or private institutions with minimal government oversight.
Her appointment also makes sense with Trump’s campaign of vague bluster to solve complicated issues. This is a libertarian approach to education, one based on the idea that deregulation will offer consumers more choices and those choices will improve schools as a whole. But even if the consumer choice model worked in general, it wouldn’t apply here. An education is a substantially more difficult product to evaluate than a sandwich, and its most direct consumers are both not the ones making the decisions and literally children. For a laissez-faire model to work, even in theory, buyers need to be rational, informed agents of their best interests who can respond to shifts in the market, and straight up none of that is the case when it comes to education.
So it’s not too surprising that DeVos’ policies haven’t really worked in practice either. Through the Great Lakes Education Project, DeVos helped usher in the rise of charter schools in Detroit, and while the city’s public schools have serious issues of their own, half of its charter options are doing no better or even worse. I’ve written before that charters are a mixed bag, and cities like New Orleans have seen benefits from publicly-funded, privately-operated institutions. But Michigan’s approach to charters has been uniquely gung-ho about free market practices, with 80% of its charters run as for-profit businesses and all of them subject to less oversight than they’d find in other states. New Orleans’ success, meanwhile, has happened under regulatory and accountability measures that are harder to implement and don’t have the appeal of ideological purity.
All this confirms something I learned in my misspent youth: free market capitalism and mandatory education are uneasy allies if they’re allies at all. Some of us like to think of America as a meritocracy, but wildly uneven school performance ties a student’s success to their parents’ wealth, creating a more rigid class structure than our national myth would suggest. And the easy answers of deregulation aren’t enough for the complex questions that education presents.
Because there are a ton of complex questions in education that need answers! Public schools are still funded in part by property taxes, concentrating opportunities in specific areas and denying them elsewhere. Many schools are still struggling to adequately teach students with a history of trauma. Detroit’s public schools were the lowest-performing in the nation in 2009. But Detroit’s problems weren’t solved by reflexive deregulation that put total faith into an ideal that’s imperfect at best. And there’s no reason to think the country’s problems will be solved by that same principle applied wholesale.
The short-term solution is to call your senators and urge them to refuse to confirm Betsy DeVos for the position, but her policies are part of something larger and harder to stop. We have a national narrative of bootstrap-pulling that pretends everyone has an equal opportunity so fervently that we let inequalities remain, a narrative that sees we need to do more for our students and so finds a solution that is elegant and disastrous. Philosophies of free market self-determination—whether found in libertarians, old guard conservatives, Clintonian Democrats, American self-conception, or a shitty teenager who has just read Ayn Rand—is appealing because it makes the world smaller, more moral, easier to fix and even easier to wash your hands of. We ask for simple answers, and we get them. They just don’t work.