February 15, 2017

Interview of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

What have you learned from the gauntlet you had to run to get here?

Q. What have you learned from the gauntlet you had to run to get here?

A. Not knowing exactly what to expect coming into it, I don’t have anything to compare it to, however, it seemed pretty difficult and pretty unnecessary, but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and continue to do the things I thought were important to make the case to confirm me. I met with every member of the Health Committee. We reached out to all the members. None of the Democrats agreed to meet until after the holidays, or explicitly agreed not to, so that made it very compressed and it also gave them the opportunity to say, ‘Well, we haven’t met with her.’

Q. I haven’t seen protests like this over a cabinet nominee, even your entry into a school they tried to block.

A. I don’t think most of those are spontaneous, genuine protests. I think they’re all being sponsored and very carefully planned. We’ve seen enough written that they want to make my life a living hell. They also don’t know what stock I come from. I will not be deterred from my mission of helping kids in this country.

Q. Have you considered some political theater of your own, like bringing poor and minority kids trapped in failed public schools to Washington so Congress can tell them why they have to stay in failing schools while their kids attend private schools?

A. We had an example of that in Florida where over 10,000 parents and students marched in Tallahassee against that lawsuit that the teachers union had filed, which of course has been dismissed, thankfully (it was a lawsuit trying to block a school voucher program). I think that is an idea worthy of consideration.

Q. Members of Congress send their kids to private schools. Some teachers in bad public schools send theirs to private schools.

A. That is the hypocrisy of those who are most opposed to giving those kids choices. They themselves have exercised choice, either by where they live, or by paying the tuition to send their children to where they choose.

Q. Will school choice and charter schools be your first priorities, or will you start with something less controversial, as they say?

A. I think that is the bigger picture goal, to help implement, on some significant scale, an opportunity for states — and it has to be a state-adopted program. But the first step is the rollout and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which the states are well underway with their plans for and which actually give them a lot more flexibility, as I’m learning more about the details surrounding the plan.

There’s a small piece in the legislation that will allow states that are particularly innovative to implement some course choices on a very local level. And I am very much going to encourage them to take the ball and run with it as far as possible. The bigger goal of giving all parents more choices is one that will have to be discussed and undoubtedly roundly debated, but we are going to have to continue to build the case. The momentum is there on the state level in many states. That’s where the energy needs to be harnessed in a new way.

Lawmakers here have to realize what is going on in a bunch of states and they have to look at the data that demonstrates that particularly low-income parents at a level of almost of 75 percent to 80 percent embrace the idea of giving more choices and empowerment. So, continuing to make that case and bringing people along is going to be my focus.

Q. Ronald Reagan and Bill Bennett tried to get rid of the Department of Education, but Congress blocked them. If you are successful and more power devolves to the states, will we need a Department of Education?

A. I think that’s a valid question. I do think there are some federal roles around ensuring children with special needs and then the anti-discrimination issues at the level they were originally intended. Those are areas in which I think there is a federal role, but I also think there is an opportunity to streamline and simplify a lot of the engagement and involvement the department has had around some of these issues, issues that have continued to mushroom and grow well beyond the core focus of those two important functions and protections.

Q. There have been many programs to improve public education through Democrat and Republican administrations. And yet American students continue to lag behind in areas like math and science. Why haven’t those programs worked? What has been the missing piece in these noble and sometimes very expensive efforts?

A. Because top-down solutions never work in anything. I think the more states and locales are empowered to innovate and create and are unencumbered by unnecessary regulations and sort of beaten into a compliance mentality vs. a can-do and results oriented mentality … It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that any type of top-down solution, no matter where you try to employ it in government, it’s not successful. This department just invested $7 billion trying to improve failing schools and there were literally no results to show for it.

I need to stress that I could not be more supportive of great teachers and great teaching, no matter what kind of delivery vehicle they are teaching through. We have to support great teachers. They just have to be freed-up to do what they do best. I think in many cases they are limited by the top-down, one size fits all approaches, either at the school level, the district level, the state level, or in all too many cases, the federal decree.

I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.

Q. What about family situations that government can’t fix — the absent father, for example?

A. The whole child.

Q. Yes.

A. It’s not an easy or a single answer, but again it goes back to having the power to influence those things at the classroom level.

Q. Throughout most of the public school system, which began in the late 19th century and flourished in the 20th, education included values, McGuffey Readers and even prayer and Bible reading, until the Supreme Court outlawed both in the ‘60s. Do you see a correlation between the loss of American values, a sense of morality, a concept of the transcendent, right and wrong, objective truth that have been banished in our relativistic age and lack of achievement in some places in our schools?

A. I think it’s a significant factor. Many of the schools I’ve seen, especially the charters, have a focus on character development and again the whole child development. That’s one of the reasons parents are choosing alternatives like this.

Q. You hear reports that before the Obama administration left office they populated many of the federal agencies with people who are sympathetic to their worldview in order to frustrate whatever the Trump administration wants to do in many categories. Have you sensed any of that here in your first few days in office?

A. I am going to have a couple of meetings later today to understand what has been uncovered by the beachhead groups (these were groups that went into each federal agency during the transition to assess how departments work, or don’t work). I will say I have some concerns based on a couple of experiences we’ve had in the first few days, but I’ve also met a lot of wonderful people. I have visited all three of the buildings and walked all the floors and met and shook hands with everybody. I enjoyed that and will do it more often. I know there are many wonderful, sincere, hardworking people. I also would not be surprised if there are also those that would try to subvert the mission of this organization and this department.

Q. What can you do about that?

A. Whatever can be done will be done and it will be done swiftly and surely. We have to be focused on one thing and that’s what’s best for students and children.

Q. The president and vice president have said this administration has a 100-day plan, a 200-day plan and a 300-day plan. Do you have something similar for the Department of Education?

A. Yes, we do. It’s being revised in the current reality. It’s a framework and we’ll be working closely with the White House to make sure we are in step with the president’s vision. That is one of the things that motivated me to even consider this role, that (the president) spoke very strongly and forthrightly about the need to empower parents with choices for their kids.

This will be about empowering the states, not another federal program. We don’t need another federal program.

© 2017 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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