Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at the Manhattan Institute’s 19th Annual Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner

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US Department of Education

May 1, 2019

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Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at the Manhattan Institute’s 19th Annual Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner

Thank you, Roger Hertog, for that kind introduction. And I’m very grateful for President Bush’s kind words. I’m also thankful to be joined by my husband, Dick, daughter Andrea, son-in-law Michael, and my mom, Elsa and her husband, Ren.

Let me start by thanking the Manhattan Institute for this award. Although, I must admit I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve such an honor.

America’s students do great things every day. All I’ve done is work to give them the freedom to do them. That shouldn’t make someone stand out. But that it does, says a lot about the state of affairs in education.

I’m deeply honored to share this evening with Lawrence Mone. It is nearly impossible to think about the Manhattan Institute without also thinking of him. During his time as president, Lawrence made the Institute into a think tank that works—a reputation of intellectual force applied to real people, not just white papers.

When it comes to education—a subject I tend to think about a lot—the Manhattan Institute was in at the ground floor of the reform movement. And your stellar work continues today, thanks to people like Max Eden. Your important insights—and dependable pressure on government to right what it has wronged—exemplify the thoughtfulness and practicality we’ve all come to expect from this Institute.

When I think of this award’s namesake, I can’t help but think of Broadway’s take on one of our Founding Fathers: Alexander Hamilton.

With or without music, Alexander Hamilton’s commitment to our country and our prosperity was unmatched. He noted that our young Republic is about more than independence. America is an idea. It’s the revolutionary notion that our rights are not bestowed by man—not a king, not a bureaucrat, nor anyone else.

Our rights are God-given, and they are innately ours.

“The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records,” Hamilton wrote. “They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased.”

That line may not have made it into a Broadway tune, but it’s music to my ears.

Hamilton’s playwrights probably didn’t expect it when the musical opened, but they turned that theatre on 46th Street into a classroom. Unfortunately, too many students know of Alexander Hamilton because of the show, not because of their education.

Only about 15 percent of America’s students have a reasonable understanding of American history. And the numbers look just as bleak in other core subjects.

The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, ranks the United States 24th in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math in the world. And it’s not for lack of funding. Americans spend more on education per pupil than almost every other nation on earth.

And there are many who propose we spend even more on doing the same thing over and over again. Albert Einstein called this “insanity.”

It brings to mind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Renewal” initiative.

One of the mayor’s signature policies renewed nothing, but it did confirm that more than 750 million dollars in centralized spending doesn’t buy better results.

Education spending, Milton Friedman said, “will be most effective if it relies on parental choice and private initiative.” The godfather of school choice was right then, and he’s still right today.

Students deserve something different. And actually doing something different demands courage to confront a powerful and pernicious establishment. One that opposes change in education, as establishments tend to do in every other industry. And let’s not kid ourselves, education is an industry.

Detroit’s automotive giants, for example, began as America’s change agents. But they soon began protecting “what is” at the expense of what could be. Meanwhile, foreign automakers started doing everything Motown was doing, better, faster, and cheaper.

The “big three” stuck their fingers in their ears as the deafening roar of foreign competition raced toward them. Instead of going head-to-head with their competitors, Detroit’s automakers ran to Washington’s lawmakers to fix their problem.

Look where that got them, and us.

Similarly, a cabal has rooted itself between students and their education to protect “what is” at the expense of what could be. Their fingers are in their ears, too, refusing to hear the chorus of voices demanding better. Instead of pursuing innovations for students, they pursue protections from politicians for themselves.

It’s a precarious paradox Alexander Hamilton and others warned us about.

The Federalist Papers, to which Hamilton contributed a great deal, cautioned against a tyranny of factions. These groups of agitators jealously protect and advance their own self-interests to the detriment of just about everyone else.

Sound familiar? Education unions, the association of this, the organization of that… those are today’s factions. One of their own, the late Al Shanker, said this: “I don’t see a voice for students in the bargaining process. I think it’s one of the facts of life…the consumer, basically, is left out.”

That union boss admitted then what’s still true today: factions keep student voices out. But it’s way past time to let them in!

Like those of the nearly 50,000 on charter schools’ wait lists here in New York City alone. And millions more who say they would choose a different school if they had the opportunity. We must listen to and do better for all students.

So, how do we solve this problem? Well, the solution is as old as America herself: freedom. Freedom from government. Freedom for teachers and freedom for students.

First, freedom from government. It’s useful to recall Congress’s commitment when it created the U.S. Department of Education 40 years ago. Then, lawmakers vowed that the move would “not increase the authority of the Federal Government over education [nor] diminish the responsibility for education which is reserved to the States.” That’s the law, and I take it seriously.

So, we are breaking the stranglehold Washington has on America’s students, teachers, and schools starting with all the social engineering from the previous administration: Title IX; Borrower Defense to Repayment; Gainful Employment; accreditation; school discipline; ESSA mandates; Common Core—just to name a few. We are fixing each of these staggering overreaches.

And perhaps what we have not done is just as important. We have not imposed new regulations or new requirements not rooted in law. We are not meddling in matters properly left to communities, to teachers, and to families.

Let’s talk about teachers a moment.

We know a great one can breathe life into any subject. She can bring her students wing to wing with Orville Wright, take them on a trip to a palace in Versailles, or to a stuffy room in Philadelphia in the sweltering summer of 1787. He can turn a book into an experience, a hero of the past into a role model for today, and a lecture into a lesson that stays with his students for life.

America has those teachers—many of them. But “the system” doesn’t treat them like the professionals they are. Its survival depends on extraordinary teachers to be treated no differently than ordinary ones. Great teachers challenge the way things have always been done, which tends to embarrass those who don’t.

They’re given no option, no incentive but to do basically the same thing. So, too many teachers simply move from year-to-year, rung to rung up their step-scale compensation ladder. Is it any surprise when great teachers leave the classroom?

Every teacher should be trusted with more autonomy, freed with more flexibility, and honored as professionals who know their students and what each of them needs to learn and succeed.

Our first educators—parents—must be free, as well. Parents hold what Hamilton referred to as a “natural liberty” to decide the best environment for their children’s learning.

I have four children and eight grandchildren, and they are each beautifully unique individuals. They learn differently, and they each need different things to challenge them. I suspect the same is true for every one of your children or grandchildren.

And we should embrace that. But the education cabal says that all of our kids must learn as assigned: in the same way, in the same place, at the same time, as if they are all the same.

Well, that is wrong!

A recent study from professors at Stanford and Harvard confirms that 50 years of spending more money on “the system”—including over a trillion dollars from federal taxpayers—has not improved student achievement, especially for the most vulnerable among us. American education remains a monopoly controlled by factions.

That’s why our Education Freedom Scholarships proposal is important. I hope you’ve seen the plan we recently announced and the legislation that was introduced. It’s a federal tax-credit—which will not create a new federal program or grow the federal government. It will instead fuel state-led efforts to develop more opportunities for their own students.

And students will do better, because they will be empowered to pursue the education that excites and engages them. America’s forgotten children will finally have opportunities that the wealthy, the powerful, and the well-connected already have today.

How? Freedom! When we get a taste of it, we want more. Free people cannot be stopped.

Look what happened when Americans exercised their freedom to buy foreign cars. It forced American automakers to a reckoning.

40th in math should be America’s education reckoning.

Germany had its own in 2000.

When the world’s 15-year-olds took the first PISA exam, many in Deutschland expected the results to confirm what they believed: German education was of course the best in the world.

Well, in what’s become known as the “PISA shock,” Germany actually ranked near the bottom in all subjects. It was a wake-up call. Germans expanded options for students and teachers and extended flexibility and autonomy to local schools.

Apparently, it paid off. In the most recent assessment with even more countries participating, Germany placed 11th in reading and 16th in math and science.

Meanwhile, we’ve slid down further into the middle of the pack. “Middle.” “Average.” I’m not content describing America that way. And I know you aren’t either.

We had best not cede our leadership role to other countries—especially those who don’t share our values, or worse, to those who wish us harm. However you quantify leadership—whether by the economy, by defense, or by any other measure—it all starts with education.

American education must lead the world because America must lead the world. America is still the beacon of hope for freedom-loving people. And more freedom at home means Lady Liberty’s torch shines even brighter abroad.

Freedom requires constant vigilance to defend. I am inspired by many of you who have dedicated your careers to the cause of freedom at home and around the world.

I will continue to fight for freedom. Freedom from government. Freedom for teachers. And freedom for each one of America’s students. I know I can count on the Manhattan Institute to do the same. Thank you. May God bless you.