In a speech at the Reagan Ranch Center, Betsy DeVos said,  “Let’s stop and rethink the definition of public education. Today, it’s often defined as one-type of school, funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of  ‘the public,’ then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to ‘the public.’ That should be the new definition of public education.”
Photo: AP Photo
Photo: AP Photo

Channeling Ronald Reagan, Betsy DeVos calls for tearing down education wall

Education secretary says school choice can end the wealth and power divide among students

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos paid tribute to Ronald Reagan in a speech today, turning his campaign to bring down the Berlin Wall into a metaphor for her school choice crusade.

President Reagan was an early advocate of choice; his  administration advocated means-tested vouchers, but Congress would not agree. The administration proposed awarding poor families $600 a year to pay tuition at private schools or at public schools outside their communities. 

Here is part of what DeVos said today to the Young America’s Foundation at the Reagan Ranch Center on the issue: 

Each dismantled piece of the Berlin Wall is a testament to Reagan’s force of purpose and principle. While that wall was reduced to rubble, there’s another kind of wall that needs tearing down today.

This wall is just as old and just as devastating to those who—through no fault of their own—happen to live on the wrong side.

I’m referring to a wall in education that keeps too many students from learning.

It separates wealthy, powerful, or well-connected students from those who aren’t wealthy, powerful, or well-connected. They have about as much education freedom in America today as East Germans had freedom to do anything back then.

Too many students are up against another “empire”—governments, unions, associations of this, and organizations of that. It’s an education cabal that protects the status quo at the expense of just about everyone else.

But “status quo,” Reagan reminded us, is just “Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’”

The Reagan Administration warned of that mess 36 years ago in its landmark “A Nation at Risk” report. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” it concluded, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Since then, we have spent over $1 trillion at the federal level alone trying to fix education.

But, as Reagan once asked, “what have we bought with all that spending?”

Well, a very recent study by folks at Stanford and Harvard tells a grim story. The study looks at the past 50 years of attempts to fix education. It confirms that all the additional spending did nothing to improve the gulf in student achievement between those with freedom and those without.

We are still a nation at risk. In fact, we are a nation at greater risk.

More government is clearly not the solution to this problem. Again, it is the problem. Yet, like a broken record, sycophants of “the system” insist otherwise.

Well, our strategy is this: students win, they lose. Students win with freedom. First, freedom from government. When Jimmy Carter created the U.S. Department of Education 40 years ago in a nod to teachers’ unions, Congress 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, starting with all the social engineering from the previous administration. We are pulling back on staggering regulatory overreaches, including one with which I’m sure you’re familiar, Title IX.

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 and to families.

The family is the first school, and, as Reagan said, “both our public and our private schools exist to aid our families in the instruction of our children.” He was right then, and he’s still right today.

So, let’s stop and rethink the definition of public education. Today, it’s often defined as one-type of school, funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of “the public,” then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to “the public.” That should be the new definition of public education.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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