Editorial: DeVos would bring innovation to schools

The Detroit News

President-elect Donald Trump interviewed Michigan’s Betsy DeVos over the weekend for possible appointment as education secretary. She would be an inspired choice.

DeVos is a powerful advocate for education innovation, and is committed to the principle that every student should have the opportunity to learn in a quality school.

She and her husband, Dick DeVos, the billionaire former chairman of Grand Rapids-based Amway Corp., have turned most of their recent attention and philanthropy towards improving education choices for parents.

Her philosophy is that there is no single answer to the education puzzle, but rather different options are required for different children and circumstances. She also advocates for modernizing how children are taught, and being open to new methods of learning.

“What we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their family’s home,” DeVos said in an interview with the Philanthropy Roundtable. “We advocate instead for as much freedom as possible. One long-term trend that’s working in our favor is technology. It seems to me that, in the internet age, the tendency to equate ‘education’ with specific school buildings is going to be greatly diminished.”

DeVos and her husband backed a ballot proposal in Michigan that would have provided vouchers for families to use in whichever school they chose. The measure failed under intense opposition from the public school establishment. Had it passed, Detroit would likely have held on to many of the Catholic schools that were so successful in educating disadvantaged children, but have had to close for lack of resources.

She has supported the charter school movement — Dick DeVos founded an aviation charter school in Grand Rapids — but that isn’t her sole interest.

“We think of the educational choice movement as involving many parts: vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools,” she told the Philanthropy Roundtable.

One of the criticisms of charter schools is that they too often don’t perform much better academically than the traditional public schools.

But there’s a good reason for that. Policymakers have saddled charter schools with the same curriculum and testing requirements as the traditional public schools, and so they are forced to teach for the most part in the same way.

Most schools in the public sector have not fully embraced technology or new methods of learning.

DeVos said in the interview that a basic problem with education is that students are bored, which happens “when you check all of those new technologies at the door and go sit in rows of desks and listen to somebody talk at you for 30 or 40 minutes. Can you imagine sitting through an indifferent lecture when you know there are programs that make learning fun, resources that make information instantly accessible? I can’t.”

DeVos understands that education needs to move into the modern era and away from curriculum mandates and rote testing. Trump would do well to bring that outlook to his administration.