Prepared Remarks to the National Parent Teacher Association Legislative Conference

Archived Information

Prepared Remarks to the National Parent Teacher Association Legislative Conference

March 13, 2018

Thank you, Jim, for that kind introduction and for your leadership of this fine organization. I appreciate the opportunity to be with all of you and the chance to get out the Department for a minute – the early signs of spring are promising food for the soul!

I know you must appreciate this opportunity to gather and learn from each other, and to return to your communities, your schools, and your homes reenergized and refocused on our main motivation: individual students.

Our commitment to every student’s success is one we must renew every day, but first we must ensure our children are safe at school.

We just heard Alissa’s heart wrenching story. Alissa, I want to commend you for your courage, and also for your action. The work you are doing through Safe and Sound Schools is making a real impact by highlighting and sharing concrete and easy to implement ideas on how to make schools more secure. Thank you for helping to bring something good out of something evil.

Your experience was one after which we all said, surely, no parent should have to live through something like that again. But, distressingly, too many have.

The tragedy in Parkland, Florida was a sad reminder that there is still much work to be done to ensure no parent, no teacher, no student has to again endure what many did at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

But now is not another occasion to race off to our political corners or to insulate ourselves from each other and jab at perceived enemies, as too often happens. The practice of talking past each other doesn’t serve anyone, and it doesn’t accomplish anything. Now is the time to have an open and honest conversation with everyoneabout what went wrong, and what we must do now and in the future to ensure our children are safe.

President Trump has convened students, parents, educators, administrators and law enforcement to discuss how to better protect students and prevent future tragedies. I’ve attended a number of these sessions, and recently had an initial meeting with many chief state school officers to discuss state-led initiatives.

I also visited Stoneman Douglas High last week just to be with them. I listened to what these students, teachers and administrators went through and heard ways in which we can support and help them as they persevere.

We must broaden these efforts -- in our communities, our houses of worship, our homes -- and focus on finding common ground and common sense solutions.

Yesterday we announced some concrete steps this Administration is taking.

First, we must acknowledge issues of loneliness and isolation. Despite technology that makes us – at least on the surface – more connected than ever, too many students today remain disconnected and isolated, both from their peers and from the world around them. We must find meaningful ways to help them reconnect and we must address social/emotional learning.

I think of a simple but impactful effort I recently learned about. A 5th grade math teacher rearranges her classroom seating every two weeks. Before doing so, she asks each student to write down the names of 5 students they’d like to sit close to, and 5 they think would like to sit close to them. Through this practice, she can identify which students don’t have connections with their peers.

Teachers could do something similar to this in every class across America, starting today.

In addition to identifying students who might need some extra attention, we must also consider our response to what those students need.

In that same spirit, we must expand and reform mental health programs, and specifically focus on ways to identify and treat individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others. Part of that effort is looking at policies that may limit coordination or create gaps between mental health and other healthcare professionals, school officials and law enforcement personnel.

Third, Congress must act on legislation to strengthen background checks and focus on violence prevention. This includes the STOP School Violence Act, which provides states with grants for training, technology and technical assistance.

Congress has also proposed bills to make certain schools have the resources they need to improve safety infrastructure, hire counselors and host more programs and additional activities aimed at prevention. Congress should pass meaningful legislation without delay.

We are also calling on every state to adopt Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which allow law enforcement to stop individuals who are a demonstrated threat from purchasing guns and to seize firearms currently in their possession.

Fourth, we must improve the physical security at our schools. This includes assisting states to train specially qualified school personnel on a voluntary basis. These highly specialized courses prepare school staff to respond to incidents. Programs like this exist in a number of states including Florida, Texas and Ohio. Additionally, we will support the transition of military veterans and retired law enforcement – folks who already know how to respond in a dangerous situation – into new careers in education.

Finally, I will lead a Federal Commission on School Safety which will focus on identifying solutions and best practices to assist states and communities in their efforts to prevent school violence. That includes an in-depth inventory of what states are already doing that may be applicable in other states and communities.

For instance, in my home state of Michigan, Attorney General Bill Schuette created an app monitored 24/7 by state police for students to provide anonymous tips. This was modeled after something Colorado developed in the wake of the Columbine tragedy.

The commission will tap into the knowledge of educators, parents, mental health professionals and law enforcement to hear their ideas and learn from their experiences.

I hope you will bring forward ideas that are working in your own communities so that we can amplify them across the nation. You can do this today! Send us your thoughts to

There is no one-size-fits all approach for every state, or for every community. And there will be varying solutions. That’s why your insight is necessary as we work to uphold our commitment to students… that adults will keep them safe as they pursue their learning at school.

You all live this every day. Your organization aims to help bring together every stakeholder in a student’s educational experience to find the best ways to help each and every child.

I’ve always believed that parents and teachers are best suited to drive education.

Because they’re your children. You know what’s best for them.

Parents have the greatest stake in the outcome of their child’s education. Accordingly, they should also have the greatest power to make sure their child is getting the best education.

Equal access to a quality education should be a right for every American.

And every parent should have the right to choose how and where their child is educated.

Parents need to know – and have the right to know -- what is and is not working about their children’s schools. Some parents want to be equipped with the information to make a different choice for their child, and others want to know where their child’s current school needs to get better.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, encourages states to be transparent to parents and taxpayers alike. Parents need information that is accessible, relevant and actionable. That information is power to help improve a child’s school.

You also deserve the power to decide what’s best for your child. I’m pleased we’ve been able to put an end to some of the Washington mandates that have prevented that in the past. But teachers still need more flexibility to do what’s best for students.

Because the federal-first, top-down approach distorts what education ought to be: a trusting relationship between teacher, parent and student. Ideally, parent and teacher work together to help prepare a child for a fulfilling life and successful careers.

Our children deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant and exciting. Every student deserves a customized, self-paced and challenging life-long learning journey.

Unfortunately, too much in education is built around industrial era thinking and needs.

Everything about our lives has moved beyond that era. But American education largely has not. To be sure, there are many educators who are doing great work to bring their methods and learning environments into the 21st century.

And we need more of them. Many more of them!


Well, the most recent Program for International Student Assessment report has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. That’s middle of the pack. Average. We should never be satisfied with “average.”

I couldn’t help but observe that after finishing 4th in the recent PyeongChang games, the U.S. Olympic Committee called for action and reform. If fourth demands action, 40th demands an education rethink.

Now, as you may have seen over the past couple of days, that seems to be a controversial sentiment -- but it shouldn’t be. So, now that I have the opportunity to speak unedited, I’m not afraid to call out folks who defend stagnation for what it really is: failure.

That’s why I joined many parents in Michigan and fought hard for more choices. And Michigan families were among the first in the country to exercise their right to enroll their children in charter schools.

But even today, choice is highly limited in Michigan. Where options do exist, students often do better. In Detroit, for example, students who attend charter schools perform twice as well as their traditional public school counterparts on state achievement tests.

But that’s still not good enough. Michigan hasn’t embraced further reforms and hasn’t yet offered parents robust choice. As a result, students have suffered. That’s borne out in the data. 4th grade reading and math scores are essentially a flat line, while states surrounding Michigan offer parents more choices and see improving student achievement.

Of course, there are some who say that choice takes money away from school buildings. From school systems. But money doesn’t belong to buildings or systems. Taxpayer money belongs to you. Your money for your children.

So, we should be clear on what “school choice” really means. Choice in education is not when a student picks a different classroom in this building or that building, uses this voucher or that tax-credit scholarship. Choice in education is bigger than that. Those are just mechanisms.

It’s about freedom. Freedom to learn. Freedom to learn differently. Freedom to explore. Freedom to fail, to learn from falling and to get back up and try again. It’s freedom to find the best way to learn and grow… to find the exciting and engaging combination that unlocks individual potential.

We must always encourage a culture of creativity and innovation in education. We must always challenge ourselves to do better in the same way we should always challenge our students to do better.

So, why don’t we consider trying something different?

Why don’t we pursue a paradigm shift, a fundamental reorientation… that rethink I mentioned?

“Rethink” means we question everything to ensure nothing limits a student from pursuing his or her passion, and achieving his or her potential. So that each student is prepared at every turn for what comes next.

Question everything. At every school. In support of every student’s success.

Let’s ask the questions that often get labeled as “non-negotiable” or just don’t get asked at all:

  • Why do we group students by age?
  • Why do schools close for the summer?
  • Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun?
  • Why are schools assigned by your address?
  • Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?
  • Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in?
  • Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace?
  • Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?
  • Why do we limit what a student can learn based upon the faculty and facilities available?

We must answer these questions. And I encourage you to go back to your next PTA meeting with these questions in hand. Spark the important conversations that need to happen in your own communities!

What students really need won’t originate in Washington. It will come from people in this room. It will come from those closest to students. And it may well come from students themselves.

I don’t trust Washington or those who blindly defend the status quo. I trust parents and teachers, and I believe in students.

We must do better for them. We must do better for our teachers, for our parents, for our students…for our country.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless our future—America’s students.