Speaking at a conference of education reporters, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said. “As much as many in the media use my name as clickbait or try to make it all about me, it’s not. Education is not about Betsy DeVos nor any other individual.”
Photo: AP Photo
Photo: AP Photo

Betsy DeVos: Calls for more choice, charters and compensation for teachers

She tells reporters she’s not clickbait and not the story

In her comments today to the Education Writers Association National Seminar in Baltimore, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reinforced her vow to broaden school choice. 

Calling herself “a common-sense conservative,” DeVos said, “It is a freedom philosophy…While it is true that 90 percent of students today are enrolled in traditional public schools, it’s also true that 60 percent of their parents say they would prefer something different if only they had the freedom to choose. So, I’ll continue to fight for their freedom, and freedom for all.”

DeVos recalled volunteering at a small faith-based school in Michigan that relied on benefactors for 90 percent of its funding. “The more I got involved, the more I realized for every child at the school, there were probably 10 or 20 other families that wanted to have their kids there. I realized more and more the unfairness of the situation and the system we have grown to become accustomed to. I became committed to changing that system. That is why I entered public life,” she said.

DeVos said she doesn’t enjoy the publicity her position brings. “I am an introvert. As much as many in the media use my name as clickbait or try to make it all about me, it’s not. Education is not about Betsy DeVos nor any other individual,” she said.

At the seminar, which I watched via livestream, New York Times education reporter Erica Green sat down on a stage with DeVos and asked her about her efforts to prod states to expand their choice menu, including her proposed  $5 billion annual federal tax credit for voluntary donations to state-based scholarship programs. The program to help underwrite public school students moving to private schools is called Education Freedom Scholarships.

“For 50 or 60 years, we have been doing the same thing and expecting different results,” said DeVos. Citing the recent study by researchers Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson that found no change in the achievement gap in a half century, she said, “The federal government has spent a trillion dollars and it hasn’t ultimately improved anything. The Education Freedom Scholarships should be appealing to everyone.”

Green asked: Do the resources available to local schools matter? Again, DeVos promoted choice as the answer.

“Having the ability to direct and control where those resources go on the child or family level really helps parents become wise consumers and make decisions based on what their needs are for their child, how their child learns and how their child is interested in pursuing their future,” said DeVos. 

Green asked DeVos about her department’s approach to protecting LGBT students and affirmative action, given her rollback of Obama-era guidance in those areas.

“We are committed to ensuring all students’ civil rights are protected,” said DeVos. “I am also committed to following the law. I am not going to overstep and make law where there isn’t law. I think the things you are referencing were overreach on the part of the previous administration. They were protections on paper; they weren’t actual protections…The previous administration overreached and went past what the Supreme Court has opined on affirmative action policies.”

DeVos noted she has supported affirmative action in her own state in the past because public schools aren’t delivering a quality education to many poor kids. “What k-12 is producing is not fair, it is not fair to too many students,” she said.

She took a few questions from reporters in the audience, including one about the disappointing academic results out of the Louisiana voucher program

“The program in Louisiana was not well conceived,” said DeVos. “It has discouraged many schools from participating in it, and, in fact, encouraged some schools that may not had been parents’ first choice had they been given a free range of choices.”

While the media regards academic performance in calculating the success of a charter school, DeVos said, “Parents have a range of reasons for making the choice that they do for their child. We should enter those sorts of concerns into the equation.”

Asked by an Arizona reporter about self-dealing and profit-making in the charter sector in his state, DeVos said states should deal with fraudulent actions, whether by charters or traditional public schools. 

But, she said, the spotlight belongs on the million students on wait lists for charters, including 50,000 in New York. “There is a demand for these options and we would be providing more of these options,” she said.

She endorsed higher pay for teachers, but not across-the-board increases and not through strikes and walkouts. 

“Great teachers need to be well paid…I think it is important adults have adult conversations on adult time and they not ultimately hurt kids in the process,” said DeVos. “Again, really great teachers should be compensated more, but the system forces them into a box that doesn’t recognize teachers as the individuals they are. Teaching as profession should be highly honored – it has been de-professionalized. Great teachers should be making at least half of what Randi Weingarten {president of the American Federation of Teachers} does at a half million dollars a year,” said DeVos. 

In response, Weingarten said in a statement: “I’d be delighted if Betsy wants to get all teachers close to $200,000—they deserve that—and so much more. Let’s start by using a proposal like the one from Kamala Harris, who is actually with us today visiting public schools in Detroit and Dearborn and listening to the educators who teach our children. We could do this if Betsy worked with us to revoke tax cuts for rich people. She won’t even have to give up the summer homes and the yachts.”

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