The empiricists’ anti-charter arguments that were trotted out against Betsy DeVos weren’t particularly empirical, Ross Douthat notes:
There’s no evidence that DeVos-backed charters actually visited disaster on Detroit’s students. Instead, the very studies that get cited to critique her efforts actually show the city’s charters modestly outperforming public schools.
That “modestly” is important, because it tracks with much of what we know about school choice in general — that it offers real potential benefits without being a panacea. Decades of experiments suggest that choice can save money, improve outcomes for very poor kids whose public options are disastrous, and increase parental satisfaction. (The last is no small thing!) But the available evidence also suggests that choice alone won’t revolutionize schools or turn slow learners into geniuses, that the clearest success stories are hard to replicate, and some experiments in privatization (like Louisiana’s recent voucher push) can badly disappoint.
So in DeVos, we have an education secretary who perhaps errs a little too much on the side of choice-as-panacea, overseeing (with limited powers) an American education bureaucracy that pretty obviously errs the other way. And wherever you come down on striking the right balance, it’s hard to see this situation as empirically deserving the level of political controversy that’s attached to it.