August 17, 2022

Betsy DeVos Sparks Backlash With Education Proposal—but the Idea Is Far From Crazy

The vicious backlash to DeVos’s remarks actually reveals a broader lesson about just how difficult it is to scale back government once it is expanded. 

Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was one of the most controversial members of former President Trump’s cabinet. Few officials in the entire administration earned the same level of mainstream media ire and social media nastiness as the secretary. Yet over the weekend, we saw that the backlash continues even now that DeVos has returned to private life. 

DeVos went viral after calling for the abolishment of the federal Department of Education, of which she was previously secretary, during remarks alongside Corey DeAngelis at the right-leaning political convention FreedomFest. (At which I attended and spoke). DeVos took the same position at another conservative political gathering over the same weekend. 

This isn’t actually the first time DeVos has taken this position, but for some reason, this time it truly gained widespread traction—and led to hysterical denunciation from political figures and media pundits. 

Consider this statement from California Governor Gavin Newsom, a prominent progressive Democrat.

“Republicans are trying to destroy public education,” tweeted Newsom. “Banning history. Banning books. Banning student speech. And now Betsy DeVos is admitting it.”

Or similarly hysterical commentary from a wide array of social media commentators: 

First, let’s clear up some misinformation included in these attacks.

Ending the federal Department of Education would not, in any way, shape, or form, end or abolish public education. Almost all education is funded and provided at the state and local levels.

The Department of Education is simply a regulatory behemoth that issues rules and mandates that forcibly impose one-size-fits-all education on a diverse country. Removing the Department from the equation would not remove the government from education—not even close. It would simply localize more power and scale back an immensely wasteful and dysfunctional bureaucracy. 

What’s so bad about that, exactly?

Of course, there’s room for debate about the proper role of the government in education. But the vicious backlash to DeVos’s remarks actually reveals a broader lesson about just how difficult it is to scale back government once it is expanded. 

The Department of Education has only existed in its current form since 1980. And, according to Reason, it was created largely by former President Jimmy Carter to win the electoral support of teachers’ unions. But just a few decades later, the idea of its abolition is considered extreme and beyond the pale by huge swaths of the public. 

That’s because once a new, vast government bureaucracy expands, it creates an entire class of beneficiaries—both political and financial—who rally support for it and fight like crazy for its preservation, including by misleading the public about what ending that department would entail. (I.e. falsely saying ending the Department would end public education). 

That’s why, unfortunately, the Department of Education is unlikely to be abolished any time soon. While those who believe in limited government, federalism, and individual liberty can continue working toward that goal, we ought to take the lesson here and apply it more broadly. 

We must be incredibly wary of expansions of the federal government’s power, even those initially proposed as temporary or modest in scope, because once it expands, any effort to scale it back will face tremendous resistance and vitriol.

Just ask Betsy DeVos. 

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This article, Betsy DeVos Sparks Backlash With Education Proposal—but the Idea Is Far From Crazy, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.