Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos to the National School Boards Association

Archived Information

Prepared Remarks by Secretary DeVos to the National School Boards Association

January 28, 2019

Thank you, Frank Pugh, for that kind introduction.

Thank you all for everything you do to serve your communities. In your roles, nearly all of you as volunteer school board members, you are each in an important position to advocate for students and to listen to families.

While we’re gathered in our nation’s capital, I’ve always believed the best solutions are developed by those in your state capitals, or by community and faith leaders. But first by families sitting around a kitchen table.

As you would imagine, in my job I think a lot about all things education. And education is perhaps the most local issue there is. But those closest to students often seem to be the least empowered. And that’s not right. A one-size-fits-all approach is a mismatch for too many kids.

Every student learns differently. That every student should be free to do so is why I’m here. It’s also fundamental that every student and every teacher deserves to be safe at school.

In the wake of tragedies in our country, President Trump took swift action. He also asked me to lead a commission on school safety. We set out to learn from you and many others. We traveled the country to see what’s already working in communities, to harness what we learned and to share it broadly.

Our School Safety Commission Report is not a mandate. It’s a guide which amplifies great ideas others could and should consider. Thank you for all that you’ve done to encourage others to read the report and seriously consider its many recommendations.

As you well know, there is no universal school safety plan that will work for every school across our country. A prescriptive approach by Washington would be inappropriate, imprudent, and ineffective. What works in one community wouldn’t be the right answer in another. Local challenges need local solutions.

That’s also at the heart of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

This bipartisan law represents an important shift in America’s approach to education policy. Unlike other education laws from administrations on both sides of the aisle, the successful passage of ESSA indicated that legislators in this town realized federal overreach in education had failed to achieve well-intentioned goals.

The bill was enacted partially in response to widespread calls – probably from many of you – for more flexibility and opportunity to address local challenges. Well, this law gives you – and the parents you serve – that chance.

I recently penned a letter to parents empowering them with information about the significant flexibility ESSA affords. I hope it’s a telling example of the different approach I’m committed to pursuing. Instead of “Dear Colleague” letters, I much prefer “Dear Parent” letters.

It’s important for you also to know about and exercise ESSA’s built-in flexibilities. For instance, as you know, states are required to test students annually. But ESSA invites each state to determine their standards and develop innovative assessments. Your state can also set a certain percentage of Title I funds aside to use in new and creative ways. And there’s a student-centered funding pilot program for dollars to support students – not buildings.

I encourage you to lead within your state. Embrace the freedom ESSA allows and the freedom for which many of you fought. Additionally, look for ways to extend flexibility – to empower teachers and parents, those closest to students.

Now, some students need more support than others, but that doesn’t mean anyone should expect less of them or that they should be sold short. Yet when it comes to students with disabilities, too many have done just that. A “system” said one student’s IEP was “appropriate” so long as it allowed for “merely more than de minimis” progress.

De minimis? The minimum? De minimis is unconscionable. Low standards and low expectations tell students that we don’t have hope for them. That we don’t believe in them. But we do. That’s why I applauded the Supreme Court for rejecting such a low bar for students. I’ve reminded Congress of its commitment to funding IDEA. And we’ve recently launched an initiative to examine and address anything that limits learning for students with disabilities, including the possible inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.

Ultimately, we must do better for all students, for their futures, and for our country’s future.

To that end, I believe we must actively and boldly pursue a paradigm shift. A “rethink.”

You may have heard me talk quite a lot about that lately, and I want to be clear what I mean. “Rethink” means this: everyone question everything to ensure nothing limits students from being prepared for what comes next.

Who is “everyone”? Everyone is everyone. Students themselves. Students of every age. Parents. Grandparents. Educators. Faith leaders. Administrators. Business leaders. Servicemen and women. Community leaders. School board members. Workers of every kind. Elected officials. Everyone.

And what is “everything”? Everything is everything. Where, when, how, what, and why we do things today – and everything about what we could or should do differently.

So, here are a few questions to consider. And I hope you discuss them in your own communities when you get back home.

Why limit educators?
Why assign kids to school buildings based on their address?
Why group kids by age?
Why force all students to learn at the same speed?
Why measure learning by hours and days?
Why suggest a college degree is the only path to success?
Why believe education stops at graduation?

These are questions that beg to be asked – and answered openly and honestly. In every state, in every community, in every home. Let’s emulate the inquisitive nature of children. They don’t put limits on their abilities or aspirations, and neither should we.

Right now – today – there are students across our country who are far too limited, who have no education freedom. Right now, a student is bored in her math class, but her school building doesn’t offer AP courses. Another student wants to apprentice at a local bank to earn while she learns to pursue a career in finance, but her school district doesn’t credit such opportunities. Another student is breathing in mold, another is dodging fists, and yet another is stepping over rats. And each one is forced to stay in the school that doesn’t work for them simply because they’re assigned there by their zip code.

Those students are relying on us to unlimit their education, to expand their freedom.

You know, we just marked an important anniversary of a great expansion of freedom here in Washington. 15 years ago, D.C. parents were fed up with not having options for their kids. They demanded something different. They demanded freedom. Today, more than half of students in D.C. attend schools other than their assigned one, and there is still significant unmet demand.

Then, education freedom was a bipartisan issue. And it still is today.

Something else about D.C. which is too often overlooked: outcomes continue to improve for all kids – not just ones in private schools or charter schools or traditional public schools. All choices are important. Freedom is important.

Look to the Sunshine State for even more encouraging results. Nearly half of all students in Florida exercise some sort of choice. And what is happening as more students are empowered with more education freedom? Students in every type of school do better. Florida now outperforms nearly every other state in the Nation’s Report Card coming from nearly dead last.

All students deserve the same opportunities like kids in D.C. or in Florida. Each and every student across our country needs education freedom.

Our nation’s teachers need freedom as well. Teachers are on the front lines, and they know what their students need. Yet too often, they don’t have a voice in their school. 60 percent of teachers recently told their own union that they have moderate to no influence over what’s taught in their own classrooms.

I’ve met with a number of excellent teachers who have left the classroom. They are no longer teaching, even though they have a passion for it. There was Matt, who was berated for not being on page 72 of the lesson plan on a certain day of the calendar. And there was Jed, who was repeatedly told to “keep it down” because his class was “having too much fun” learning.

Too many teachers express frustration that they aren’t trusted with more autonomy; that they aren’t honored with more flexibility; and that they aren’t respected as professionals who know their students and what each of them need to learn and achieve.

Freedom is not a threat. The only folks who are threatened by education freedom are the same ones who have a vested financial interest in suppressing that freedom.

The limitations on freedom will persist only if the rest of us do nothing. But we can do something. And we must. When Americans encounter problems, we find solutions. It’s what we do.

We all need the freedom to be problem solvers, including and especially students. When we un-limit students, it will unleash their creativity and they will change the world. Not a single student can wait any longer for adults to get this right. I challenge you to join with families across the country and embrace education freedom.