DeVos: Fight for Students, Not Over Them

Secretary of Education makes powerful case for parental choice

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos returned home recently to deliver the keynote address at the Acton Institute’s 27th anniversary dinner gala.

DeVos made clear to the large Grand Rapids audience what motivates her education policy views, a vision that is more popular among the nation’s moms and dads than it is among the officials and bureaucrats who run the system. “I came into office with this core belief: It is the inalienable right and responsibility of parents to choose the learning environment that best meets their child’s individual needs,” she said.

The education secretary sharply criticized the orthodoxy that entitles government officials to use parents’ tax dollars to decide where and what and how their children learn, even though parents are accustomed to making choices in nearly all other aspects of their children’s lives.

According to DeVos, those who direct the prevailing K-12 system are “trapped in an outdated education model,” beholden to the “wrong and manipulative” theories of Horace Mann and John Dewey. Instead, she prescribed following the principles espoused by leading 20th century conservative intellectual Russell Kirk.

“A central body of bureaucrats, he rightly pointed out, cannot and should not do for people what they can do for themselves,” she declared. “Children are not widgets to be engineered. They are persons, each born with an innate creativity that should be unleashed to explore and enhance the world.”

The secretary of education further sought to wrest away rhetoric commonly used to attack her and others who prominently support advancing choice. “A school that prepares its students to lead successful lives is a benefit to all of us,” she said. “The definition of public education therefore should be this: to educate the public.”

While touting the positive value of parental choice policies, Secretary DeVos reasserted that attempts to mandate such policies from the federal government would be counterproductive. She instead offered a refreshing take on how the U.S. Department of Education could play a key supporting role in advancing educational freedom.

“We can amplify the voices of those families who only want better for their kids. We can assist states who are working to further empower parents, and we can urge those who haven’t to start.”

DeVos used her speech to introduce a video recording of Denisha Merriweather, whose own Florida Scholarship Tax Credit Program success story has made possible her new opportunity to work at the Department of Education to help advance this mission.

Michigan is one of 24 remaining states that have not adopted a private school choice program, though a large number of families choose charters and other public school options. The secretary praised the work of local schools of all stripes — district, charter, private and parochial — but acknowledged that too many kids in Grand Rapids neighborhoods do not receive a quality education.

“They are why our work is never done,” DeVos said. “There is no finish line. There is no ‘good enough’ when it comes to our children. We must challenge all schools to do better, because even the best school in America needs to continue to improve.”

DeVos called on the audience to join her as “fearless” agents of systemic educational change.

“Instead of dividing the public when it comes to education, the focus should be on the ends, not the means,” she said. “Adults should stop fighting over students, and start fighting for students.”