U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' Remarks to the National Association of State Boards of Education

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US Department of Education

March 20, 2017

The following remarks were given today at 8:45 a.m. at the Loews Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C.

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

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' Remarks to the National Association of State Boards of Education

Thank you, Kris, for that kind welcome. And thank you all for the work you do as members of your states’ boards of education.

I know you all are anticipating some discussion about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the implications for your states. But since we haven't yet had the chance to meet, I want to begin by telling you a little bit about my background and how I got involved in education. …

These experiences have informed my thinking on education, which is this:

I believe in kids; I trust parents; I trust teachers; and I want to empower state and local leaders to do what’s right for children.

I believe any student can grow and thrive if given the chance to receive a quality education.

For me, this is just common sense.

I think most of us would agree that common sense doesn’t always win out in Washington. 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 classroom teacher should feel that the Department of Education is stifling his or her ability to educate kids.

No parents should feel that the Department of Education thinks it knows better than they what is best for their children.

And no district or individual school should feel that the Department of Education is hampering its ability to improve the learning environment of students.

It’s time for the Department to get out of your way and let you do your job.

And the president’s budget reflects this outlook. The budget stresses the need to place power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children. The president promised to invest in our underserved communities, and our increased investment in choice programs will do just that.

This budget also continues support for our nation’s most vulnerable populations, including students with disabilities. It streamlines and simplifies funding for college, with the goal of making higher education more affordable and accessible.

Taxpayers expect that their dollars will be spent efficiently and effectively. This budget reflects an intention to invest in education programs that work, while reducing duplicative programs and empowering the state and local levels to administer others that are best kept at those levels.

Most importantly, this budget maintains our Department’s focus on supporting states and school districts, with the goal of providing an equal opportunity for a quality education to all students. I look forward to working with the president, Congress and all of you in pursuing these reforms that put students first.

As all of you are aware, the Department released the revised consolidated state plan template last week.

I know the members of this room are familiar with the technical aspects of the Every Student Succeeds Act, but I believe it’s helpful to take a step back and examine why this law matters.

At the end of the day, we should measure everything we do by one question: How does this impact individual students?

Every child is different, with varying skills and learning styles. We shouldn’t then force all children into a one-size-fits-all education system. Our education approaches should be as varied as the students they serve.

I’ve had the joy of meeting many students throughout my decades in education reform. I’d like to tell you about a few of them who, I believe, exemplify the diversity of backgrounds and needs of children.

One young lady, Denisha Merriweather, failed the third grade twice at her assigned traditional school in Florida. Denisha was on the path to becoming another statistic. She appeared destined to follow in the footsteps of her brother and mother, who both dropped out of high school.

But Denisha’s godmother intervened, and, because of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Denisha was able to attend a school that better met her needs.

Now Denisha is not only the first in her family to graduate from high school, but she also graduated from college and, this May, she will receive her master’s degree in social work.   

Another student I met, Sandeep Thomas, grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India with absent and neglectful parents. Sandeep was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey but continued to suffer from the experiences of his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington state, where Sandeep was able to join a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the comfort of his own home and develop at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, and also having earned 39 hours of college credit. Today, he’s working in the finance industry and is a public advocate for increased school options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

Earlier this month, the Military Child Education Coalition held an event at the Department of Education. Members of the Student 2 Student program from Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Virginia, were there. S2S, as it’s called, brings military and civilian kids together to provide community to the military students, who are constantly moving between schools. As 11th-grader Madison Lewis said, the S2S program feels like “one big family” in that it helps give students the nurturing environment they need to learn and thrive.

All of these students’ experiences suggest that we should value and appreciate the individual trees rather than see a monolithic forest. Let’s stop prioritizing process over people.  If our actions don’t benefit students at the individual level, there is no reason for us to pursue them.

Public policy can provide the framework to encourage flexibility and diversification within our education system to meet the needs of students and set them up for success in adulthood. That’s why I’m a strong supporter of ESSA.

We’re going to start by implementing the law as Congress intended, giving you all – state leaders – the freedom and flexibility you deserve.

No two states are identical. You know this better than anyone. The issues and challenges facing West Virginia are different from those of New Hampshire or Oregon. We shouldn’t insist the same solution will work everywhere, every time.

I expect each of the plans your states develop to be quite different. And they should be. The plans should reflect the diversity of the states you serve and the unique opportunities you have to meet students' needs.

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 the revised 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 your governors and state chiefs – should be free to educate your students. And that’s the real key to ESSA.

State boards play an important role in determining how the states will use this flexibility to improve education for individual students.

For example, in Nevada the state board and governor have launched over 25 initiatives to improve their state’s education system.

One of those 25 programs is the Nevada Achievement School District (NVASD), which was launched this year. The state identified the schools that were persistently underperforming, and has instructed the achievement school district to provide the families attending those schools with up to six high-quality, local options.

This is but the first step in helping more than 57,000 children attending Nevada’s underperforming schools, but it is a step in the right direction.

Your states are also best positioned to prepare your workforce through career and technical education that fits the unique needs of your economies. The president has made it clear that strengthening our nation’s workforce is crucial to maintaining our global competitiveness. We need to seek out and highlight the best practices and most effective efforts put forward in individual states so you can determine whether they might be replicable and/or appropriate in your own state.

California has been forward-leaning in implementing career and technical education (CTE) programs that deliver results: The state now offers more than 13,000 courses that meet the admissions requirements of the University of California system.

California has also invested in Linked Learning programs across the state that integrate industry-based learning at the college-prep level, allowing students to acquire the skills needed to begin a high-potential career right after graduation.

Those are just two examples of important work happening in your states. Under ESSA, we hope you will heartily embrace the inherent flexibility to implement policies that best fit the needs of your students, parents and teachers.

As you exercise this freedom and flexibility on behalf of students, families and schools, I challenge you to keep raising the bar. Nothing short of excellence should be our common theme and refrain.

There is always more work to be done and new ways to inspire learning. We should not rest until every child has an equal opportunity to learn and thrive.

I challenge you to seize this moment and embrace the inherent responsibility it poses.

We must never lose sight of our mission: providing each child with the chance to pursue a great education in a safe and nurturing environment.

I know you’re ready to lead in a new way. You’re ready to innovate. You’re ready to work with your local partners, district by district and school by school, to ensure that every one of your students can grow and thrive.    

Your success is the key to America’s prosperity. We owe it to the rising generation to give them nothing less.