Carolyn Kaster, AP
In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, President-elect Donald Trump stands with Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos in Bedminster, N.J. DeVos has spent over two decades advocating for school choice programs, which give students and parents an alternative to traditional public school education. Her confirmation hearing is scheduled for Jan. 17.

The confirmation hearing of President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education is approaching, so there’s no shortage of attention on Betsy DeVos right now.

We’ve heard from some of DeVos’ major critics — including teachers unions — who focus on the fact that DeVos never personally attended public school, never sent her children to public school, has never been a public school teacher, and — most importantly — advocates for school choice.

Others see her appointment as an opportunity to infuse new ideas into a stagnant system.

Some appreciate DeVos’ emphasis on choice but question whether and how to use federal power to bring about parental choice and local control.

It’s important that all this chatter be channeled into thoughtful questions and honest dialogue. At Sutherland Institute, we’d like to offer three important questions for the person who may be our next secretary of education.

1. How do you intend to reduce the federal footprint in education?

Having a conservative secretary of education is somewhat ironic — because many limited-government advocates believe a U.S. Department of Education offends limited government on its face. State and local governments have authority over education.

And parents have the constitutional right to guide their children’s education. The wisdom of local control is that those closest to the student are in the best position to know what will help a child meet his or her unique potential.

Unfortunately, the past several years have seen unprecedented federal intrusions in education, such as attempts at nationalized standards and a “dear colleague” letter that pressured local school districts to apply clunky transgender bathroom policies even in places where local districts were finding solutions for diverse students. Even ESSA has a ways to go before it makes good on its promise to restore flexibility to states.

The next administration should resist the temptation to create more federal mandates when it believes it has the “right answer” to reform. The right answer is to hand power back to the states.

2. What is the best way to improve public education — funding increases or innovative reforms?

Trump has said he would create a $20 billion education reform program. Education reformers often fall into two camps — those who believe our public school system needs to be better funded and those who believe it needs to be transformed.

The truth is, everybody wants education to be properly funded, and nobody wants to waste money.

Research shows that in terms of funding, what matters most in education is how money is spent. America has dramatically increased the amount of money spent on school, yet has seen stagnated national test scores and unimpressive international rankings. Apparently, money is only as good as the ideas it funds.

States and districts should have the freedom to rethink things like seat time, age-based grade levels and educational choice. Federal policies should allow greater flexibility in how federal funds can be used — for instance, making Title I funds “portable,” following the child wherever the parents choose an education.

3. What role should the federal government play with regard to accountability in public schools?

Many believe the federal government has a legitimate role in ensuring all students have access to a quality education. This includes accountability policies, which measure whether schools meet a level of performance.

31 comments on this story

Reformers on both sides of the aisle have championed things like academic standards, standardized testing and school grading to improve transparency and equity. But when done wrong, those measures become wildly unpopular. When the federal government incentivized states to adopt Common Core, the standards became a politically toxic issue. School grading is sometimes rife with complicated formulas and imperfect outcomes. Excessive testing mandates weary both students and teachers.

Accountability goes awry when it relies too heavily on standardization — the oversimplification of how different individuals learn and teach. Ultimately, education is about the learning of individuals with unique interests, talents and weaknesses. We cannot oversimplify its measurement without consequence.

Buzz about DeVos’ confirmation hearing can become an opportunity to engage in real dialogue about principles and policies. We should all join.

Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy analyst for Sutherland Institute.