Remarks from Secretary DeVos to the American Legislative Exchange Council

Having trouble viewing this email? View it as a Web page.

US Department of Education

July 20, 2017
Contact: Press Office
(202) 401-1576 or

Remarks from Secretary DeVos to the American Legislative Exchange Council

Thank you, Lisa, for the kind introduction.  

It’s good to be here at ALEC, with so many friends and quality leaders shaping policy across all 50 states. A special thanks to my fellow Michiganders, thanks so much for joining us and for your hard work in the Great Lakes State.

I’m no stranger to state-based advocacy; it was a primary focus of mine for 30 years before I entered public service.  

After my husband Dick and I acknowledged our philanthropy could only directly help a limited number of kids, we jumped into the policy arena to empower as many students and parents as possible. It was the only way to help foster the fundamental – and necessary – shift in how we approach education in America.  

This advocacy has led to some… let’s call it… “excitement” on the Left. You’re certainly no strangers to organized protests by defenders of the status quo. But, it’s the first time in recent history I’ve been to an event where the protesters aren’t necessarily here just for me! But I consider the “excitement” a badge of honor, and so should you. Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change. You represent real change. 

You have led the way in helping states across the nation craft innovative solutions to today’s problems: in healthcare, taxes, regulations, entitlements, and importantly, education. 

Instead of seeking today’s headlines, you’ve played the long game. We’ve all benefitted from this patient approach. Through your leadership, your respective states have truly become the laboratories of democracy our Founders intended. Thank you for putting their vision into practice. 

The reason the Founders believed in empowering states is because states are best equipped to solve the unique problems each of them face. I suspect all of you share that belief. New Hampshire has different challenges than Illinois, Utah or California. Leaders in each state are likely to better understand their own circumstances. They are closest to the issues, and thus are more able to devise solutions, than someone perched in Washington, DC.  

School choice reforms continue to gain momentum across the nation precisely because they have been driven from within states. Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter law in 1991, and the first voucher program was launched in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that same year. They paved the way for states like Florida and Indiana and Louisiana to create robust and successful choice programs. Last year, in Florida alone, 111,000 students utilized Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Gardiner Education savings accounts, and McKay scholarships for students with disabilities – and the numbers grow every year to meet increasing parental demand.  

And new waves of legislation are sweeping through state capitals. Kentucky passed its first-ever charter law this year—where are the Bluegrass State legislators?  Congratulations! North Carolina’s legislature overrode their governor’s veto to provide special needs students with Education Savings Accounts.  North Carolina, keep up the fight! And Arizona now provides ESAs to every student in the state. What a huge accomplishment!  

These are just a few examples of school choice’s increasing momentum. In the first six months of this year, 40 legislative chambers in 23 states have passed bills expanding school choice for students and their families. 

Progress in providing parents and students educational choices didn’t come through a top-down federal dictate – it came as a result of leadership from governors like John Engler, Tommy Thompson, Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels and continued with governors like Doug Doocey, Scott Walker, Eric Holcomb, Rick Scott and Matt Bevin.  

And it came from state legislative leaders like Polly Williams in Wisconsin, Brian Bosma and Todd Husted in Indiana, Anne Duplessis in Louisiana, Debbie Lesko in Arizona, Dan Forrest in North Carolina, and so many others, many of whom are in this room today. And the next reforms won’t originate from Washington, DC: they’ll come from you. 

Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy. It’s good policy because it comes from good parents who want better for their children. Families are on the front lines of this fight; let’s stand with them! 

Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart. Just the other week, the American Federation for Teachers tweeted at me. Can you please put this up on the screen? You have to see it. They said, “Betsy DeVos says public should invest in indiv[idual] students. NO we should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.” 

I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor. They have made clear that they care more about a system – one that was created in the 1800s – than about individual students. They are saying education is not an investment in individual students. And they are totally wrong. 

What, exactly, is education if not an investment in students? 

I was reminded of something another secretary of education once said. Her name was Margaret.  No, not Spellings – Thatcher.  Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on “society.” But, “who is society,” she asked. “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families” – families, she said – “and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” 

The Iron Lady was right then, and she’s still right today!

This isn’t about school “systems.” This is about individual students, parents, and families. Schools are at the service of students, not the other way around. 

Now, let’s be clear: providing more educational options isn’t against public schools. It’s actually not against anything. School choice is about recognizing parents’ inherent right to choose what is best for their children. That’s the manifestation of expanding human liberty in America. 

And for those of you here today, who have been on the front lines, you understand the struggle at the very core of this debate: There are those who defend a system that by every account is failing too many kids...and there are those who know justice demands we give every parent the right to an equal opportunity to access the quality education that best fits their child’s unique, individual needs. 

That, of course, doesn’t always sit well with defenders of the status quo.  But despite the teachers unions’ not-so-veiled threats and millions of dollars, can anybody name a single legislator who has lost a seat for voting to support parents and students? 

You can’t. That’s because it’s never happened.  It’s because equal educational opportunity is common sense and because it’s the right thing to do. 

Now this drives the big-government folks nuts, but it’s important to reiterate: education is best-addressed at the state, local and family levels. 

If you need another reason to believe the federal government shouldn’t be involved in education, look no further than Obamacare. The federal government couldn’t build a website that worked, but progressives think it should run a national healthcare system? 

We need healthcare reform that rewards innovation and puts patients at the center, just like we need changes in education that put students at the center, empowers educators and spurs creativity.  

The same principle applies to fixing our nation’s broken tax code: we need to reduce the financial burden on hard-working individuals and job providers to unleash the economic potential that has been held captive for too long. Without reform, the next generation of entrepreneurs will swim upstream against the developed world’s highest corporate tax rate and a system that punishes risk-taking rather than encourages it. 

On these issues and more, President Trump is determined to place power back in the hands of people. 

The President has said that this administration will reduce the federal footprint in education, and he signed an executive order this past April instructing our Department to review every regulation that might obstruct parents, teachers, communities and states from best-serving their students.  

It’s a sad state of affairs in Washington when common sense requires an executive order. 

We’re taking concrete steps to realize that vision, beginning with the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. While we must comport with the law Congress passed, we urge states to embrace the opportunity for creativity and flexibility and to break away from the “compliance” mentality that has for too long afflicted education.  

This path is a stark departure from the previous administration, which issued regulations that were a far cry from – and even ignored – Congressional intent. Thanks to the Congressional Review Act, we’ve returned to the law that Congress actually passed, and I’m looking forward to reviewing and ultimately approving every plan that meets the law. 

In accordance with the President’s executive order, we’re undertaking a “regulatory reset” to review the previous administration’s most harmful and costly regulations. And, there are plenty that fit that description.  

Without Congressional action or authorization, the last administration rushed a new Borrower Defense to Repayment rule into effect and put taxpayers on the hook for an estimated cost of up to 17 billion dollars. While students should have protection from predatory practices, schools should also be treated fairly.  

Similarly, the previous administration’s Gainful Employment rule took two words from the Higher Education Act – passed over 50 years ago, mind you – and turned it into 215 pages of regulations. It was textbook overreach, and was solely to advance their administration-wide war on every type of organization they didn’t like. The uncomfortable truth for those rule-makers, however, was that if many traditional institutions were held to the same standards as for-profit entities, many of them would fail the Gainful Employment requirements too. This concern was widely shared throughout the higher education community, so this entire area needs to be reexamined.  

We’ve pushed the pause button on both of these poorly written regulations. While they might have been well intentioned, they would cause more harm than good. Most importantly, they would fail to serve students, institutions and taxpayers well.  

The time of inefficient, top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates is over. This approach does not work; it has not worked; and it will never work! And we’re fooling ourselves to think otherwise. My job is to get the federal government out of the way, so that you can do your jobs. 

Back to the Every Student Succeeds Act, just as we applaud the federal government’s return of decision-making power and flexibility to states under ESSA, I want to go a step further and challenge you to grant that same flexibility to your state’s districts, principals and – importantly – to teachers. 

Teachers are on the front lines, and they know how to best meet the needs of their students. Yet too often, their voices aren’t heard. Last week, I met with a number of teachers who no longer teach. I wanted to understand why they aren’t doing what they all professed to really love doing – teach.  I heard from Matt, who was berated for not being on page 72 of the lesson plan along with everyone else, on a certain day on the calendar. And I heard from Jed, who was told to “keep it down” because his class was “too energetic” and “having too much fun.”  

These talented ex-teachers expressed frustration that they weren’t entrusted with more responsibility, honored with more flexibility, and weren’t respected as professionals who know their students and what each of them needed to learn and achieve. Their “system” mandated that teachers follow the same written and unwritten rules, rather than do what is right for students.  

I come back to the same simple philosophy: those closest to the students know best.  

Parents know best what learning environment is right for their child. And teachers know best how kids will succeed in their classroom. But the bottom line is that neither our parents nor teachers are empowered.  

We all know that the solutions to the problems that have vexed education in America for decades will not be realized unless we work together to overcome the status quo, to give parents the opportunity to choose what is right for their children, and to give educators the opportunity and flexibility to teach their students in ways that will allow them to flourish. 

Let’s foster and encourage solutions from the bottom-up.  Let’s honor America’s grassroots, entrepreneurial history and spirit and embrace the changes that doing so promises. It’s the best way to give our students and their parents the best chance at the quality education they deserve. 

Our work will not be done until every child in America – every single child – has an equal opportunity to a world-class education. The rising generation is 100 percent of our future, so they deserve nothing less than 100 percent of our effort.  

Thank you all, God bless you, and I look forward to working with you.