Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2019 States & Nation Policy Summit

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Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2019 States & Nation Policy Summit

December 5, 2019

Thank you, Lisa Nelson, for that introduction and for your strong leadership of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

It's good to be with so many friends and leaders shaping policy across all 50 states. For more than 30 years, state-initiated solutions to intractable issues were my primary focus—and they still are. States are where the action is—or, at least, where it should be.

I've always believed problems are best resolved in states and communities, driven by community leaders, faith leaders, local and state-elected leaders. And, importantly, by families committed to their neighbors.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously admired how America's communities governed themselves—how we govern ourselves. He wrote that "the health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens."

Your work reminds everyone of that truth. Our government is meant to be a limited government. We consent to a government that exercises only those duties delegated to it by the Constitution.

The 10th Amendment was no afterthought. Our Founders warned that if Congress ventured beyond that boundary, human nature would "take possession of a boundless field of power."

In fact, if the Constitution does not explicitly permit the federal government to do something, it is supposed to be left to the States. To communities. To families.

Left to "We the People." Everything anyone needs to know about America—about who we are—is contained in those three little words.

"We the People" govern ourselves. We know what's best for ourselves, and for our own children. We can better figure out how to help our neighbors because we know our neighbors. We know our communities.

Yet far too many have advanced the insidious idea that if the Constitution does not explicitly forbid the federal government from doing something, it permits it. Just look at the creation of the U.S. Department of Education for evidence of that.

If you read the Constitution carefully, you'll discover that our Founders spilled no ink on education.

Congress pretended to recognize that when it created the Department 40 years ago. It promised 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 because education is perhaps the most personal issue there is. But those closest to students—and students themselves—are too often the least empowered to pursue it. And that's not right.

This Administration is making good on Congress's 40-year-old promise to respect the role of states, communities, and families in education.

It begins with our faithful implementation of the bipartisan K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

ESSA represents an important step in respecting the role of education in this country. For the first time in modern history, politicians on both sides of the aisle realized federal overreach in education had failed.

ESSA affords your states and your communities more flexibility to address your challenges. For instance, states are required to test students annually. But ESSA invites each state to determine their standards and develop innovative assessments that focus on achievement. Your states can also use a certain percentage of federal taxpayer funding in new and creative ways. There's a student-centered funding pilot program. Dollars to follow and support students—not buildings. I like to picture kids with backpacks representing funding for their education following them wherever they go to learn. More states need to seize the student-centered funding pilot opportunity to do what's right for their students. Not many have to date.

You are the leaders to embrace the freedom in ESSA and extend that freedom to empower teachers, parents, and students themselves. And we should all use ESSA as an opportunity to have a serious conversation about the failure and future of the federal role in education.

Federal taxpayers contribute less than 9 percent of total education funding in this country. So, why is a Federal agency of more than three thousand employees needed to administer it all?

Why aren't all education decisions made in states, local districts, and around kitchen tables? Why shouldn't every state, every community, and every family decide the best ways to spend their dollars for their students?

Across the country, where this is happening to varying degrees, we're seeing expanded education freedom and students finding their right fit.

West Virginia and Kentucky passing their first-ever charter laws. North Carolina empowering special needs students with Education Savings Accounts. Arizonans are loving their ESAs, too.

And then there's Florida. Students in the Sunshine State have more mechanisms for education freedom than anywhere else in the country. Public charter schools, tax-credit scholarship programs, education savings accounts, vouchers. And yet, there is still unmet demand. Thousands of students are on lists hoping and waiting for a tax credit scholarship.

So, leaders there continue to press on with more education freedom. They recently passed, and Governor DeSantis signed into law, the Family Empowerment Scholarship program. It will serve up to 18,000 more students in its first year, and thousands more in the years to come. Florida leads as a model more states should emulate.

Now, let's talk about Tennessee. Families throughout the state have long demanded better for students. That's especially true in Shelby County, Memphis. Schools there have consistently failed students for years; many have been at risk of a state takeover and many reported appalling cases of teacher misconduct.

And yet, the fight for something different—for freedom—was unnecessarily hard fought.

Thanks to the leadership of Governor Lee, Lieutenant Governor McNally, and Speaker pro temp Bill Dunn, some families will be able to use an Education Savings Account for their students wherever they go to learn. More families across Tennessee need education freedom.

Finally, Pennsylvania is right in the middle of an important debate. The Commonwealth was a trailblazer, among the first in the Nation to offer a tax credit scholarship. Initially, the program was funded at 30 million dollars, an additional scholarship program was launched, and now nearly 200 million dollars empower students to pursue the education that fits them. Not surprisingly, Pennsylvania families want more education freedom.

They know the caps on programs are arbitrary, in place only because of union bullying. When Pennsylvania legislators passed a bold expansion of a scholarship program earlier this year, it was a welcome victory for families who fought for it.

And we all know what happened. The Commonwealth's governor lived up to his name and snatched scholarships from tens of thousands of students who want and need them.

Now the fight has moved to Harrisburg, where, like in Shelby County, Tennessee, everyone knows the schools are not working for too many kids. They know students need something different, something better. Importantly, Harrisburg's mayor, a Democrat, agrees. "We can't let an entire generation go without access to quality education," he said.

No, we can't. We can't be complicit in students anywhere being denied education freedom. We can't be complicit in failure.

And our Nation's Report Card shows that American education is failing too many students. Two thirds of American students can't read like they should. Two out of three! Worse still, the most recent Report Card is essentially the same as the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that. In fact, student achievement hasn't improved much since 1992.

Too many American students who were already low-achieving are worse off today, while our best-performing students have plateaued. Those near the bottom—our most vulnerable—have fallen even further behind.

And we're not in the top ten—not even close—in any international ranking. In fact, we're 37th in math in the world. Let that sink in. Thirty-six other countries do better than us in math. We're outpaced not only by big competitors like China and Russia, but also by countries like Estonia, Finland, and the Netherlands.

If those dismal results don't make the case for something different—something better—in education, I don't know what does.

Families in every state need more opportunities. Many more. This Administration is committed to coming alongside states, our "laboratories of democracy." To enhance, to supplement, and to augment what you're already doing. And to encourage you to do more.

So, your support for our Education Freedom Scholarships proposal is so appreciated, and so important. ALEC's endorsement tells everyone that our proposal is the conservative, limited government cure for what plagues American education.

Our proposal doesn't grow the Federal bureaucracy one tiny bit. It doesn't create a new Federal "Office of School Choice." It doesn't impose any new requirements on states or on families. It doesn't take a single dollar from public school students. It doesn't spend a single dollar of Federal money. And it doesn't entangle schools with Federal strings or stifling red tape.

In fact, it doesn't do any of these things. And that's by design.

The key element of our Education Freedom Scholarships proposal is, as its name suggests, freedom. Freedom for everyone involved. Students, families, teachers, schools, states—any and all can choose whether they participate in the program. That's what freedom is all about.

Now, I know unleashing this freedom will require more work in some of your states than in others. But as more states offer more options to more families, demand will rise. And pressure will mount on those who have not yet embraced the opportunity.

Ultimately, Education Freedom Scholarships require only one thing: students and parents must be empowered with the freedom to find their education fit. Because an education that works for each student should not be determined by government.

How and where students learn should be determined by students and their families. Because their education is about them. It's about developing their abilities and pursuing their aspirations. It's about their futures. And it's ultimately about ours.

Our future is secured by freedom, and the defense of it requires constant vigilance.

Arizona's own Barry Goldwater knew this. He was a consistent voice for liberty at a time in which the "tide [had] been running against freedom." He reminded us that America must return to its "proven ways—not because they are old, but because they are true."

Your work in your states prove the old truth that federalism works. That limited government works. That freedom works.

Because freedom begins with "We the People." With all of us. In our homes. In our houses of worship. Our schools. Our places of work and of recreation. Our community centers and our state houses. In these places, we can "set the tide running again in the cause of freedom" for this country, and for every single one of her students.

Thank you for your work, for your support of education freedom, and your continued efforts to ensure every child in this country has opportunities to succeed.