Prepared Remarks to the American Enterprise Institute World Forum

Archived Information

Prepared Remarks to the American Enterprise Institute World Forum

March 12, 2018

Hello, everyone. It's good to be with all of you in my official capacity as Secretary.

Before Governor Bush and I begin our conversation, I first wanted to set the scene for the current state of education in America.

Take a moment to think about how much of life has changed in the last 50 years – phones, shopping, transportation… all radically different than before.

Yet there's one glaring exception: the classroom.

There hasn't been much change in education between my own experience in grade school and that of kids today.

Why? Because our education system reflects the Industrial age in which it was created.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Students lined up in rows. A teacher in front of a board. Sit down; don't talk; eyes up front. Wait for the bell. Walk to the next class. And…repeat. The set-up was to train students for the assembly line then, and we're still training them for the assembly line now.

But that's not reflective of a 21st century economy!

This disconnect has led to some stunning mediocrity on the world stage. Based on the latest data, we rank 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math.

And it's not for a lack of spending. We're 2nd in per pupil funding.

Let those numbers sink in. How is this ok? Where is the national outrage? The U.S. finishes fourth at the Winter Olympics in PeyeongChang and we're up in arms. But fortieth in the world in math? Meh.

All of this leads to the challenge: we must rethink education. Because what we're doing right now isn't working for far too many students.

There are a number of what I'd call common-sense solutions that would mitigate our education challenges. Look at higher education in the United States and compare it to K-12.

In higher ed, we have Pell grants for low-income students to attend the college or university of their choice. It's wildly popular in Congress and with the general public – and it should be! But what is Pell if not a voucher to pursue higher education?

Why can a student use a Pell grant to attend any private or religious school they choose, but their family can't use a voucher to choose a school other than the one to which their child is geographically assigned?

The same argument applies to the G.I. bill. Again, very popular and deservedly so. A veteran can use her G.I. money to go the college that's right for her – we don't discriminate based upon the institution's tax-status. That veteran can use public dollars to go to Notre Dame – but she can't use her tax dollars to send her daughters to Notre Dame Prep?

To be sure, higher education is facing its own problems. Some institutions are more concerned with preserving the ivy-covered walls or cordoning off "safe spaces" than equipping students with the skills to lead productive lives.

But we can still say with confidence that our higher education system is the envy of the world. We can't say that about K-12.

So why are these mechanisms ok in higher education but not in K-12? What's standing in our way?

That's what we're here to discuss tonight.