In just a matter of days — perhaps next Monday — a decision will be made in Washington affecting the futures of millions of children in low-income communities, and in the very troubled area of race relations in America.
An opportunity has arisen — belatedly — that may not come again in this generation. That is an opportunity to greatly expand the kinds of schools that have successfully educated, to a high level, inner-city youngsters whom the great bulk of public schools fail to educate to even minimally adequate levels.
What may seem on the surface to be merely a matter of whether the U.S. Senate confirms or rejects the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be head of the U.S. Department of Education involves far bigger stakes.
The teachers' unions and the education establishment in general know how big those stakes are, and have mounted an all-out smear campaign to prevent her from being confirmed.
What makes Mrs. DeVos seem so threatening to the teachers' unions and their political allies?
She has, for more than 20 years, been promoting programs, laws and policies that enable parents to choose which schools their children will attend — whether these are charter schools, voucher schools or parochial schools.
Some of these charter schools — especially those in the chain of the Success Academy schools and the chain of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools — operate in low-income, minority neighborhoods in the inner-cities, and turn out graduates who can match the educational performances of students in affluent suburbs. What is even more remarkable, these charter schools are often housed in the very same buildings, in the very same ghettoes, where students in the regular public schools fail to learn even the basics in English or math.
You and I may think this is great. But, to the teachers' unions, such charter schools are a major threat to their members' jobs — and ultimately to the unions' power or existence.
If parents have a choice of where to send their children, many of those parents are not likely to send them to failing public schools, when there are alternative schools available that equip those youngsters with an education that can open the way to a far better future for them.
Already there are tens of thousands of children on waiting lists to get into charter schools, just in New York alone. Those waiting lists are a clear threat to teachers' unions, whose leaders think schools exist to provide guaranteed jobs for their members.
Mrs. DeVos has shown for more than 20 years that she thinks schools exist to educate children. One of the biggest complaints about her is that, unlike Secretaries of Education before her, she does not come out of the government's education establishment. Considering what a miserable job that establishment has done, especially in inner-city schools, her independence is a plus.
Teachers' unions have fought for years to prevent charter schools from being created. Now that such schools have been created, and there are now huge waiting lists, the teachers' unions have gotten politicians to put a numerical cap on the number of such schools, regardless of how large the waiting lists are.
Desperate attempts to smear Betsy DeVos, in order to prevent her from being confirmed as Secretary of Education, have not let the facts get in the way.
She is accused of "steering public dollars away from traditional public schools." But nobody can steer anything anywhere, when it is individual parents who make the decisions as to where they want their children educated. The money follows the children.
Neither the money nor the children get steered by education bureaucrats, as happens with traditional public schools.
If charter schools educate one-third of the students in a district, and get one-third of the money, how does that reduce the amount of money per child in the public school? Actually, charter schools usually get less money per student, but produce better results.
American education is at a crossroads. If the teachers' unions and their allies can defeat the nomination of Mrs. DeVos, and the Republicans substitute someone else more acceptable to the education establishment, a historic opportunity will be lost, and may never come again in this generation.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is www.tsowell.com. To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.