Susan Collins, Maine’s senior senator, should get a “profile in courage” award for taking a principled stand against confirming Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, due to her lack of experience with public schools.

DeVos knows little about public school education, and it seems she could not care less. The daughter of a wealthy industrialist, she attended private school and has been a passionate advocate for school choice, a philosophy that seeks to channel public funding away from traditional public schools and into private and charter (including for-profit) schools. She has described the U.S. educational system as “a monopoly, a dead end.”

Betsy and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., multi-billionaire heir to the Amway fortune, have been major contributors to Republican political candidates and committees and members of the right-wing Koch donor network.

DeVos is one of several Trump cabinet nominees who’ve demonstrated a record of active hostility towards the core mission of the agency they’ve selected been to lead (the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy being other notable examples).

It took guts for Maine’s senior senator to come out against DeVos for two reasons. First, during the 2016 presidential campaign Trump received strong voter support in northern Maine, Collins’ home turf, and Trump has a blood-lust instinct for attacking anyone who opposes his wishes or criticizes his choices. Second, the DeVos family, with its vast wealth, political clout and connections, could easily promote a primary opponent or fund a media campaign against Collins if she seeks re-election for a fourth term.

Such considerations have doubtless muted criticism of DeVos by all but one other Republican in the Senate.

Senator Collins has earned almost universal praise for her gracious, courteous manner and her willingness to listen and compromise. She is one of the last members of an endangered species — a moderate Republican willing to seek bipartisan solutions.

But her political courage will truly be tested in the months and years ahead, as Donald Trump stretches the limits of what our democracy can tolerate.

The phrase “profile in courage” comes from a book first published in 1955 by John F. Kennedy, then a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and later 35th President, who became “interested in the problems of political courage in the face of constituent pressures, and the light shed on those problems by the lives of past statesmen.”

Kennedy’s book focused on nine members of the Senate who, in the course of the nation’s history, risked their political careers to do what they thought right for the country. (Ironically Kennedy, an indifferent legislator who relied on ghost-written material for his book and wrote more to promote his own political ambitions than for scholarship, was not in the same category as his subjects — at least not at that point in his life).

Opposition to DeVos shouldn’t be viewed as a knock against all charter schools or a free pass to public schools.

Although the U.S. spends more per pupil for public education than any country in the world (except Switzerland), many of its students graduate high school with inadequate levels of literacy, numeracy or critical thinking skills. Controversy over why this is happening and how to fix it has raged for decades, with conservatives blaming teachers and their unions, and teachers blaming low pay and societal problems that impede learning. That’s where charter schools can help.

In moderation, charter schools, which have more flexibility than public schools and are better positioned to supplement their budgets through private and charitable giving, can play an important role. They can serve as real-life educational laboratories to test the effectiveness of new approaches to education.

But it’s hard to imagine how an unlimited school-choice program would further American education.

Over 85 percent of American kids attend public schools in more than 14,000 school districts. Billions in physical plant and equipment have been invested in these schools. It’s challenging enough for school districts to efficiently utilize their facilities each year due to students moving around within the district, let alone to envision a scenario in which they could opt out of the district at will.

Presumably under school choice there’d be a rush to enroll in the most highly rated schools by students whose parents had the mobility and savvy to get them there. But what about poorer families marooned in inner cities, rust-belt exurbs or rural areas? Would they be left behind? And what would happen to underutilized school buildings in those areas?

Who would pay for school-choice education? Presently public primary and secondary schools would receive a mix of federal, state and local funds with a heavy emphasis on local funding from real estate taxes. Who would supervise private charter schools falling outside the authority of local school boards and who would monitor the quality and effectiveness of their curricula and teaching methods?

Introduce into the mix the possibility of abusive practices by for-profit charter schools (as have frequently occurred in for-profit colleges), and the picture becomes one of dystopia, not utopia.

All of which brings us back to Susan Collins. She took a principled stand against a Cabinet nominee who’s unknowledgeable about, if not downright hostile towards, public schools and over-the-top about school choice. In the process, she incurred great political risk.

Senator Collins will face many more difficult votes during a Trump presidency, and Maine Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike should respect her willingness to make those hard decisions.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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