U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' Prepared Remarks to the Council of the Great City Schools

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US Department of Education

March 13, 2017

Press Office, (202) 401-1576 or press@ed.gov

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' Prepared Remarks to the
Council of the Great City Schools

Thank you Felton for that introduction, and thank you Michael Casserly for your leadership of the Council, and all of you for the work you do on behalf of kids.

I want to begin by taking a moment to introduce myself – beyond the headlines and SNL skits – although it is flattering to be portrayed by Kate McKinnon, a woman younger than my oldest son.

Nearly 30 years ago, I got involved in education because I saw firsthand how many children and parents struggled to find a school that met their needs. After visiting The Potter’s House, a small private school in my hometown that provides scholarships to low-income, mostly minority students, I saw the struggle of so many families who were just trying to access the same opportunities and choices for their children that my husband and I had for ours. Schools like The Potter’s House gave kids the chance to succeed and thrive, but for every student who got the chance to attend The Potter’s House, I knew there were others stuck in schools not meeting their needs.

The realization of this injustice moved me to get involved. I decided then to help as many of these families as I possibly could.

I think we can all agree that there are few things that make your heart leap as much as seeing the smile of an excited, curious child. My heart has leapt to see big smiles on the faces of kids who are in a school environment that welcomes them, that challenges them and that embraces them for who they are. It has also leapt to see the happiness and satisfaction of a parent knowing their child has the opportunity to thrive.

For years, I mentored at-risk girls who were attending an urban public school in Grand Rapids. I’ve witnessed the impact one person can have on a child’s life, and I’ve seen the changes in a community when it chooses – often through local initiatives that include public and private partnerships – to come together and invest in the rising generation.

This is what motivated me to develop a friendship and relationship with Teresa Weatherall Neal, the superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

I have supported and continue to support her work to transform Grand Rapids Public Schools to better serve the students of Grand Rapids.

My experiences in Michigan, as well as in states across our nation, have led me to some clear conclusions when it comes to education.

The most important is this simple fact: Parents know what is best for their children....and very often, they are guided by their kids themselves. Parents know better than any politician or administrator the unique needs of each of their children.

The second conclusion is this: time and again, when parents are empowered to take charge of their children’s education, when they have quality options, we see better results for students.

For me, this is just common sense.

Parents make plenty of other decisions for their children – what they eat, what they wear, what they do and where they go outside of school. Yet, in too many cities and states, parents are still denied the simple, but critical choice of what school their child attends.

When it comes to the education of a child, I am agnostic as to the delivery system, or the building in which it takes place, so long as that child is in an environment that meets their needs and the parents are satisfied. If a child is able to grow and flourish, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.

And one of those quality options should be a great public school. I’ve said this before, and it bears repeating: I support great public schools, and I support great public school teachers – because I support students – all students.

You all live in some of our nation’s largest urban areas, and you represent millions of children. I know that you have their best interests at heart, so I am confident that we can work together to improve education for all kids. We can call out new expectations of excellence and provide every child access to a great education, regardless of where they live or how much their family earns.

If we can agree on this, then we have a starting point and a common goal.

My philosophy is simple: I trust parents, I trust teachers, and I trust local school leaders to do what’s right for the children they serve. Those closest to the problem are most often the best-equipped to solve it.

That’s also why I’m a strong supporter of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The underlying principles of ESSA are built on that same trust.

The goal of ESSA – which as you know, passed with overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in Congress – was to roll back the intrusive involvement of the federal government in decisions that should be made at the state and local levels.

To that end, I’m pleased to share that the revised consolidated state plan template is being released today.

What does that mean in plain terms? We’re going to do what’s best for children by implementing the law as Congress intended, with the freedom and flexibility that state and local leaders deserve.

The plan each state is developing will give them the ability to address their unique challenges.

ESSA ensures transparency and accountability provisions for all schools. It provides the latitude to do what’s best for children while preserving important civil rights protections for economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, English language learners, and other underserved individuals.

It requires states to ensure students – all students – have access to excellent teachers and a positive, safe learning environment that prepares them to graduate high school ready for college or career education.

And this streamlined template asks states to provide the Department only what’s absolutely necessary under the statute, with an eye toward reducing rules, burdensome and unnecessary regulations, and red tape.

Once your state has developed a plan to provide a quality education in an environment that is safe and nurturing for all children, you – together with state chiefs, governors and other state leaders – should be free to educate your students. And that’s the real key to ESSA.

We know each school district is unique. It’s fairly obvious the challenges and opportunities of Albuquerque and Wichita don’t look the same, but neither do Miami and Palm Beach. And even within each district, no two schools are identical, just like no two students are alike. We shouldn’t assume that the same answer will work every time.

Too often, the Department of Education has gone outside of its established authority and created roadblocks – wittingly or unwittingly – for parents and educators alike. This isn’t right, nor is it acceptable. Under this Administration, we will break this habit.

No teacher in any classroom should feel like the Department of Education is holding them back from success with their kids.

No parent should feel like the Department of Education thinks it knows better than they what is best for their child.

And no district should feel like the Department of Education is hampering their ability to improve the learning environment of students. 

When Washington gets out of your way, you should be able to unleash new and creative thinking to set children up for success.

One of the most important things we can do is highlight and celebrate out-of-the-box approaches.

One such example is the “innovation schools” program in the Indianapolis Public Schools district, represented today by Elizabeth Gore. These schools are under the governance of the Indianapolis Public Schools district, but they are freed up to operate independently and thus better attune themselves to the unique needs of their students.

I want to bring School 15 to your attention as an example of new thinking. School 15 has struggled for years with low-test scores, and the state gave it an “F” in 2016.  But in recent months, parents and teachers in Indianapolis have come together to propose School 15 become a “neighborhood-run” school under the “innovation schools” program. 

This isn’t a school run by an outside, third-party operator – this is a school where parents are in direct control. The community takes ownership of developing the school’s structure, staffing and performance.

This type of proposal gives everyone in the community a greater say – and greater responsibility – in the education of their children. It’s this kind of local control that we want to empower, because when parents are in charge, students benefit.

In Denver, represented today by Happy Haynes, the district is currently providing transportation to children from underserved areas to schools in other regions of the city. This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options. The “Success Express,” as it’s called, is a great example of how LEAs are leveraging federal, state and local funds to best serve children.

Another example is Cleveland’s “Project Lead the Way.” Project Lead the Way connects students with engineering businesses and organizations in the community. Children learn relevant subjects such as coding, robotics, and in some cases, 3D printing. This type of hands-on experience encourages students to engage in ways the traditional classroom often does not, and it introduces them to skills and subject-areas with high-potential futures.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s CEO Eric Gordon is here today. I’d like to give him a special thank you for his work in helping encourage this program. He’s also the reigning CGCS urban educator of the year. Thank you Eric for leading in this arena.

In these examples and in many others across the country, children have the opportunity to flourish as their teachers and administrators innovate and tailor education to the needs of their students and communities.

Let’s continue to move power away from Washington, D.C., and into the hands of parents and state and local leaders, mindful of the fact that ownership and responsibility go hand-in-hand.

But that is not new to you. You already play that role and have assumed your responsibility, and the U.S. Department of Education fully intends to support you in your efforts.

This flexibility – the freedom from over reaching mandates from Washington – is to empower you and state leaders to better serve kids.

Because together, we owe every child an equal opportunity to access a quality education, no matter their ZIP code or family income.

This is the bedrock of the American Dream.

We know it to be true.

The greatest opportunity for each child to reach his or her full potential and to pursue the promise of the American Dream is through the reality of a great education.

Together, we can deliver on this promise for every child.

Thank you again for all that you do, and for your commitment to our nation’s students. I look forward to continuing this dialogue as we move forward together.

Thank you.