Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos to JFK Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School

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US Department of Education

Sept. 28, 2017
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Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos to JFK Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School

Following are the prepared remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to the “JFK Jr. Forum – A conversation on empowering parents” today at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass.


Thank you, Dean Fung, for that kind introduction. And Dean Elmendorf, thank you for the opportunity to be here at the Kennedy School, truly one of the gems not just of Harvard, but of all of American postsecondary education.

Professor Peterson, I look forward to our conversation but I first want to recognize the significant and influential contributions to the advancement of school choice you’ve made over the years. Through both the Program on Education Policy and Governance here at Harvard and Education Next, few scholars have left such indelible fingerprints on this critical conversation. Thank you for continuing to facilitate that dialogue.

And a special thanks to President Faust for your decade of leadership as president of this, one of America’s finest institutions of higher learning. As you, and Harvard, prepare for your next steps, I wish you nothing but the best.

Here in Cambridge, there are many great people working on many great ideas to better the lives of all Americans and people across the globe. And that’s been the case for a very long time. Your graduates have gone on to shape culture and society, create businesses and new technologies, help cure diseases and yes, lead governments at all levels around the globe.

It’s a privilege to be here at the Kennedy School. I don’t want to talk about my age, but President John F. Kennedy is the first president I can personally remember – though I can’t say I remember all that much.

But I do know that President Kennedy understood the proper role of the state and once warned that: “Every time we try to lift a problem from our own shoulders, and shift that problem to the hands of the government…we are sacrificing the liberties of our people.”

President Kennedy had it right then, and despite the fact that we’ve all too often disregarded his observations, he’s still right today.

One of the many pernicious effects of the growth of government is that its people worry less and less about each other, thinking their worries are now in the hands of so-called “experts” in Washington.

There is perhaps no better example than our current education system.  Many inside -- and outside -- government insist a government system is best equipped to educate children. In that fantasy scenario, the state replaces the family, the schoolhouse becomes the home, and the child becomes a constituent.

Not too long ago, the American Federation for Teachers tweeted at me. The union wrote, “Betsy DeVos says public should invest in individual students. NO, we should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.”

The union bosses made it clear: they care more about a system – one that was created in the 1800s – than they do about students. Their focus is on school buildings instead of school kids. Isn’t education supposed to be all about kids?

Education is an investment in individual students, and that’s why funding and focus should follow the student, not the other way around.

I’ve been on the job now for some time, and I came into office with a core belief: it is the inalienable right and responsibility of parents to choose the learning environment that best meets their child’s unique, individual needs.

I’m even more convinced of that today.

This symposium rightly asks us to consider the “future” of school choice. But the current reality is: the vast majority of futures in America today are left to chance, not to choice.

The world got to see what many of us already knew in the film “Waiting for Superman.” Parents who want to free their child from a failing school are sometimes allowed by the “system” to enter a lottery for only a few seats in a different school. Even today, thousands of children vie for limited openings. The students are numbered and often represented as plastic balls rolling around in a cage as if children were a part of a bingo game.

I suggest that any sycophant of the “system” or skeptic of choice visit one of these lotteries. Watch the faces of parents – many of whom struggle to get by every day – hidden in their hands or covered with tears because they didn’t “win” a new future for their son or daughter. This scene is heart-wrenching and downright disgraceful. Children’s futures aren’t to be gambled.

There are too many kids who are trapped in a school that doesn’t meet their needs. There are too many parents who are denied the fundamental right to decide the best way to educate their child.

It’s what makes me so passionate about changing this paradigm once and for all.

Now, I’ve been called the “school choice Secretary” by some. I think it’s meant as an insult, but I wear it as a badge of honor! So let’s talk for a moment about what “choice” really is. 

School choice. Defenders of the “system” would have you believe it means vouchers, right? And charter schools. They say it means private schools, or maybe even religious schools. It means for-profit schools. They say it means taking money from public schools -- no accountability, no standards, the wild west, the market run amuck. 

Well, I’ve got to give it to them; they’ve done a mighty fine job setting the scene for that house of horrors in the press.

They did so by trying to paint an indelible line, forcing a false dichotomy: if you support giving parents any option – any say – you must therefore be diametrically opposed to public schools, public school teachers and public school students. 

Yet nothing could be further from the truth!

Think about food. Yes, food. That’s probably easy for many of you right now…it is just about dinner time.

Like education, we all need food to grow and thrive. But we don’t all want or need the exact same thing at the exact same time. What tastes good to me may not taste good to you. What’s working for me right now might not work a few years from now.

Accordingly, we choose how to best get the food that meets our unique needs.

Think about how you eat. You could visit a grocery store, or a convenience store, or a farmer’s market to buy food and cook at home. Or you could visit a restaurant. Maybe a sit-down place, maybe a fast food joint, maybe a hybrid that combines the best of both.

Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants. But you know what — food trucks started lining the streets to provide options. Some are better than others, and some are even local restaurants that have added food trucks to their businesses to better meet customer’s needs.

Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?

No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at that time.

Just as in how you eat, education is not a binary choice.  Being for equal access and opportunity – being for choice – is not being against anything.

I’m not for or against one type, one brand or one breed of school choice. I’m not for any type of school over another.

But the definitions we have traditionally worked from have become tools that divide us. Isn’t “the public” made up of students and parents? Isn’t “public money” really their money – the taxpayer’s money?

And doesn’t every school aim to serve the public good? A school that prepares its students to lead successful lives is a benefit to all of us. The definition of public education should be to educate the public. That’s why we should fight less about the word that comes before “school.”

I suspect all of you here at Harvard, a private school, will take your education and contribute to the public good.

When you chose to attend Harvard, did anyone suggest you were against public universities? No, you and your family sat down and figured out which education environment would be the best fit for you. You compared options, and made an informed decision.

No one seems to criticize that choice. No one thinks choice in higher education is wrong. So why is it wrong in elementary, middle, or high school?

Instead of dividing the public when it comes to education, the focus should be on the ends, not the means.

We should be for students – all students.  And that’s why I’m for parents having access to the learning environment that’s the right fit for their child. I believe in students, and I trust parents.

So, with that understanding of “choice,” what does the future look like?

I am not a creature of Washington, so I am not afraid to say this: we do…not…know what the future of school choice looks like! And that’s not only something with which I am okay, it is something I celebrate and embrace.

The future of choice should be whatever parents want for their children. The future of choice relies upon parents being empowered to make choices for their children.

What this looks like for one family in Wyoming will be different from what an Indiana family decides. In fact, what choice looks like for one child may be different than what it looks like for his or her own sibling! 

States are different, families are dynamic and children are unique.  Each should be free to pursue different avenues that lead each child to his or her fullest future.

That’s why I wholeheartedly believe the future of choice does not begin with a new federal mandate from Washington!

That might sound counterintuitive to some, coming from the U.S. Secretary of Education, but after eight months in Washington – and three decades working in states – I know if Washington tries to mandate “choice,” all we’ll end up with is a mountain of mediocrity, a surge of spending and a bloat of bureaucracy to go along with it.

But Washington does have an important supporting role to play in the future of choice. We can amplify the voices of those who only want better for their kids. We can assist states who are working to further empower parents, and urge those who haven’t. We don’t need a new federal program to administer. Washington, and in particular the U.S. Department of Education, just needs to get out of the way!

That’s because the real future of choice is in states. It’s their futures to shape. And it’s already underway today.

I recently went on a tour of the heartland to visit the teachers, parents, and students who are shaping their own futures. We called it the “Rethink School Tour” because I wanted to highlight, and learn from, innovative educators who are breaking free of the standard mold to better meet the needs of their students.

What I saw was encouraging. Traditional public schools, charter public schools, independent private schools, parochial schools, homeschools – even a high school at a zoo! They were all different, all with unique approaches. But what they all had in common was just that: a deliberate focus on serving their students -- and students and parents chose them.

What worked in those schools, for those students, might not work everywhere. And it might not work for you. But it worked for them. And that’s the future of school choice.

There was another common characteristic these very diverse schools shared: they all embraced doing right by their students without anyone in Washington giving them a permission slip to do so, or more importantly, without anyone in Washington telling them “no.”

That is also the future of “choice.”  Just as no one school, regardless of its quality or rigor, is the right fit for every student, there is no magic one-size-fits-all approach from Washington, DC -- or any state capitol --when it comes to education.

The future of choice lies in the states: in places that have been at the forefront of this effort for several years, like Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Wisconsin; and in places that are just now entering the arena like Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana, and even where some might have thought unthinkable, Illinois.

Today, 26 states and the District of Columbia offer more than 50 different private school choice programs that allow parents more opportunity to access more educational options to serve their kids’ needs.  And while there are similarities, no two are the same. Different states, different needs, different students, different solutions.  That’s the future of choice.

It’s important for all of us to remember that we’re not just talking about abstract theory or some wild social experiment here.  This is about putting people – putting parents and students – above policies and politics.

I’ve seen the tremendous impact of empowering parents – and the corresponding impact on students – up close and in person. I saw it again on my Rethink School Tour. I heard it directly from the students, parents, teachers and administrators I had the privilege to meet. One student at Kansas City Academy, a private arts-focused high school put it quite bluntly: “At KCA, I feel like I fit in.  I feel like I belong.  I didn’t have that at my other school.”

Every student in America deserves a shot to experience that same thing.

And have no doubt, this isn’t just about feelings.  It’s also about learning and achievement. It’s about putting students at the center of everything we do.  And time and again, studies have shown more options yield better results, for all students.

Just yesterday, a new study was released by the Urban Institute that looked at Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a program that provides low-income parents the opportunity to send their students to the school of their choice. Florida’s program was one of the first in the nation and today serves more than 100,000 students across the state. While previous studies have shown increased achievement for scholarship recipients, this study also found a significantly increased college attendance rate. Further, this study demonstrated the longer a student participated in the choice program, the better their long-term educational outcomes.

The data are encouraging, but I didn’t need another research paper to know the program works. I’ve seen living proof.


I firmly believe we, as a nation, stand at a crossroads.  Nearly everyone agrees: what we’re doing now is not working, and the data are quite clear in confirming that.  We’re in the middle of the pack, at best, compared to other nations.

Middle. Average. Those aren’t words with which I’m comfortable describing the United States.

It’s not the future we should feel comfortable offering anyone.

So what do we do? What does the future hold? More funding? Does that fix the problem? Again, the data would show otherwise, with the U.S. spending significantly more per pupil than nearly every other country in the developed world – and without the student achievement to go along with it.

We can keep doing what we’ve been doing for generations, and keep expecting different results. That is, as we know, the definition of insanity.

Or, we can do something different. We can be bold. We can be unafraid. We can choose to do what’s right “not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” Many thought Kennedy’s words were merely a dream. Some even thought they were dangerous. But his vision and determination made them a reality, and that’s a reality we still reap the benefits from today. If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can put families in charge of their own destinies.

We can rethink school. And, I posit, we do that by embracing the future of education as one that fully integrates “choice” into every decision we make.

Not choice translated as vouchers, or charter schools, or private schools, or any other specified delivery mechanism. No. Choice translated as giving every parent in this great land more control, more of a say in their child’s future. More choices.

The future of choice lies in trusting and empowering parents – all parents, not just those who have the power, prestige or financial wherewithal to make choices.

No more “choice for me, but not for thee,” from politicians in Washington, or in state houses.

The future of choice lies in caring less about the word that comes before “school” and more about the individual students that “school” seeks to serve.

The future of choice lies in funding and supporting individual students, not systems or buildings.

The future of choice lies in allowing students to progress at their own pace, to take charge of their learning, in recognizing them as the unique individuals they are.

The future of choice lies in embracing learning that fosters creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking – traits that prepare students for further education or the workforce, and for lifelong learning.

The future of choice lies in recognizing America – the greatest country in the history of mankind – can, and must, do better for our students – all of them. Because we must do better for our future.

Our children are 100 percent of our future. They deserve 100 percent of our effort.

Thank you again for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you, and I look forward to continuing our conversation.