February 5, 2017
Like most of you, my social media feeds have been bursting with political commentary from people who used to be content with sharing pictures of cute animals or vacation albums. It's hardly surprising, though, given the political climate and the news media's hyperbolic coverage of every story. I have been surprised by one thing, however: the constant drumbeat of opposition to Betsy DeVos, President Trump's nominee to lead the Education Department, who is expected to receive her final confirmation vote in the Senate on Monday.
This drumbeat continued at Tuesday's Senate education committee hearing to advance DeVos' nomination to the Senate floor. All the of Democratic senators, and even Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, questioned DeVos' qualifications for the job, citing her supposed lack of experience and knowledge of the public education system.
Despite this strong opposition, DeVos passed through the committee on a 12-11 party-line vote, but her confirmation in front of the whole Senate is on thin ice.
I concede that DeVos struggled at times during her questioning at a Jan. 17 Senate hearing, which I mostly attribute to a case of Midwestern niceness. But the attack that she is uninformed, and therefore unqualified, misses the mark on multiple levels.
Nobody highlights this mistake better than the late economist Friedrich Hayek.
Other than being the father of Austrian economics, a Nobel Prize winner, and the author of The Road to Serfdom, one of Hayek's major contributions was his work on the use of knowledge in society. Hayek argued that no one individual can possibly have enough information to centrally plan an entire economy.
This theory can be applied to many other areas as well. The takeaway is that leaders in many areas should defer to local knowledge when addressing issues rather than assuming they have the information to make the "correct" decision.
Unfortunately, many of our current senators seemed to have skipped Hayek day in their economics class.
Since the creation of the Department of Education, the power to make educational decisions has been gradually sucked out of the states and replaced with program after program forced onto them from Washington.
Policies imposed by Washington bureaucrats aimed at improving public schools via one-size-fits-all national standards and federal programs have failed to increase student achievement, despite the billions of dollars pumped into each new program.
Even targeted spending designed to address failing schools has been ineffective. A recent evaluation of $7 billion spent by the Obama administration to improve student achievement at these low-performing schools found there was no positive effect.
Viewed from a Hayekian lens, this failure should not be surprising. Top-down policies didn't fail because previous department heads were unqualified, but because no person or agency has the capacity to know what is best for more than 50 million K-12 students and more than 3 million teachers across our vast country.
This fact has long been known by DeVos. When pressed at the hearing about what her policy or position would be on certain issues, such as firearms in schools, DeVos deferred to the states to make their own decisions on what is best for their students. Even though that position has attracted the typical sneers from the Left, DeVos fundamentally has the correct position. The fact that she is willing to consult others and is able to admit when she isn't the best person to be making a decision on someone else's behalf are part of her strength as a nominee, not a sign that she's unqualified.
All of this is to say that what DeVos knows best is that she can't possibly know what's best for every state, every school, and every student in every circumstance. That knowledge is only known locally, by students, parents, and teachers far removed the bureaucratic nightmare that is Washington D.C.
It is often said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. DeVos knows something that those poised to vote against her confirmation early next week do not: Doubling down on the failed policies of the past will not help improve education outcomes and turnaround our nation's decreasing educational competitiveness. It's time to stop the insanity.
Eric Peterson (@IllinoisEric89) is a policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity.
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