Betsy DeVos, our Secretary of Education, recently said:

“Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants. But you know what? Food trucks started lining the streets to provide options. Some are better than others, and some are even local restaurants that have added food trucks to their businesses to better meet customers’ needs.

Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?

No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at that time.

Just as in how you eat, education is not a binary choice. Being for equal access and opportunity — being for choice — is not being against anything.”

In this last assertion DeVos reveals the ignorance that should have disqualified her from ever being Secretary of Education. Being for school choice certainly does indeed require being against something. In fact it requires opposition to a seminal idea that helped inspire the very creation of public education. Namely, that public schooling helps glue together a diverse nation that is in perpetual danger of falling apart.

Horace Mann, the famed leader of the original common school crusade, was very opposed to DeVos style choice — which then was utterly dominant. He said it was divisive, undermined the support of the power elite for public education, and siphoned off the best students. Was Mann wrong about the divisiveness? Does educational choice in fact divide us? Let’s consider.

Predictably, Mann was opposed by private school interests. Their finances were at stake. That, in itself, is significant because we all the time still fight over money. But he also was opposed by clergymen who were alarmed by his view that common schooling should and would empower children to decide for themselves what their religious obligations were.

Now this is something to think about. Some 85% of private schooling is religiously sponsored. And these schools are not in the business of empowering children to decide their religious obligations for themselves. Quite the opposite. Moreover, while indoctrinating youngsters in the faith, they unavoidably impart political beliefs that also are not optional. Opposition to abortion, for example. So, like it or not, a dominant element of America’s private schools do not exist to empower thought, but to impart beliefs. And since they necessarily deal in ultimates — the fundamental meaning of life, for instance — these beliefs are largely non-negotiable.

Of course disparate beliefs are devilishly divisive. Check on the Hundred Years War, the Troubles in Ireland or the sectarian strife in the Middle East if you need proof of this.

So let’s get back to school choice being divisive. Where does DeVos’ devotion to choice originate? In her wealth and her own private religious schooling. Who almost never sends their children to public school? The wealthy, of course. And why didn’t they do so? Because they want their children to be separate, to stand out, to not be a part of the common herd. Now add to that a particular set of idiosyncratic religious convictions and you’ve got the schooling DeVos experienced in her formative years. 

Now she assures us, from the Olympian heights that her family’s money secured for her, that you don’t have to be against anything to be for school choice. But if she knew something about public education she would think otherwise.