Prepared Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to the American Federation for Children's National Policy Summit

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Prepared Remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to the American Federation for Children's National Policy Summit

May 22, 2017

Thank you, Denisha, for the kind introduction, and congratulations on your graduation! I'm so proud of you and what you've achieved, and I know we are all looking forward to seeing how you make your mark in the world!

You know, it's stories like Denisha's that make me get up every day and fight for a quality education for all students. I'm inspired to see the transformational change education can make in a young person's life.

Let's all give Denisha and the other students with us this evening a hand – both of congratulations and of encouragement.

And thank you all for being here tonight. I'm glad to see so many friends.

It's fitting that we're in Indiana, one of the states that is providing real choices for families and students. Too many politicians are timid, but Mitch Daniels, Vice President Pence, Eric Holcomb and many other state leaders have stepped up and done the right thing for kids.

Every one of us here tonight is united in our belief that empowering parents and students is the only way to give kids an equal opportunity to a quality education...and an education that fits their unique, individual needs.

The effort to open up American education and to provide choices has come a very long way.

It started as one program in 1990 in Milwaukee, championed by a Democratic city councilwoman, Polly Williams. It had 341 students in its first year.

Yes, you heard that right. The oldest school choice program in the country was started by a Democrat.

If you hear nothing else I say tonight, please hear this – education should not be a partisan issue. Sure, various approaches to education policy should be hotly debated, and they certainly are.

But, making sure that all of our kids get a great education – how could it be a partisan issue? Everyone – in both parties – should support equal opportunity in education, regardless of a child's income, zip code or family circumstances.

So 27-years ago, a Democrat city councilwoman in Milwaukee bucked the system on behalf of the kids she loved. Today there are 28,000 students enrolled in Milwaukee's choice program, and we have a robust national conversation on the role of parental choice in bettering education for all students.

Students like Reyna Rodriguez.

I got to meet Reyna today – she's a senior at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her family's story is distinctly American: her dad is a firefighter and her mom is a nurse. They work every day to provide for their six children and to set them up for successful lives. Because of the financial help they receive from Indiana's Choice Scholarship, they're able to send Reyna and three of her siblings to schools that meet their individual needs.

Reyna has certainly excelled. She's been able to participate in varsity sports and the Performing Arts Department, and she credits Indiana's Choice Scholarship for giving her the opportunity to attend Bishop Luers.

Next year, she will attend the University of Indiana, Bloomington, where she wants to study to become an optometrist. Congratulations to you, Reyna, for all that you have achieved, and we wish you the best as you embark upon the next exciting chapter of your life.

Here in Indiana, we've seen some of the best pro-parent and pro-student legislation enacted in the country. More than 80,000 students take advantage of the state's public and private school choice programs. And just like with Reyna and her siblings, these students are able to grow and thrive in learning environments that suit their needs. Their parents see the results first-hand, and that's why choice has been so popular in the Hoosier State.

But for every Reyna or Denisha, there are countless students for whom their school does not work. Students like Michael.

I met Michael on a trip to Valencia College in Florida a few weeks ago. He was an impressive young man in his late twenties, a veteran of multiple tours in Afghanistan, married with three young daughters. He's in the school's honors program and is studying to become an emergency room nurse. He's on the path to a successful career.

But if you were to go back a few years, Michael's prospects for success were slim to none.

Growing up in East Hartford, Connecticut in a low-income neighborhood, Michael was an average student throughout elementary and middle school. But that changed when he reached the district high school.

Michael described a high school where students really ruled the classroom, and they would make it impossible for the teacher to teach.

He was constantly bullied, to the point he was afraid to walk the halls alone. He described his assigned school to me this way – and I quote, "nothing more than adult day care ... a dangerous daycare."

Even though he was failing his classes, the school simply passed him along from year-to-year, giving him D's and sending a not-so-subtle message – they didn't think Michael would amount to much.

Michael got a diploma, but not an education.

Michael's story is important, because there are literally millions of students in this country just like him. The system simply passes them along. They are trapped in schools that fail to meet their needs and that fail to unlock their potential. And they don't have a lot of hope for the same second chance Michael was afforded.

One of these young people wrote to the Department of Education recently. An inmate in the Minnesota Department of Corrections I'll call "N.J." wrote about the need to capture students' imagination and interest at a young age, rather than waiting – and hoping – for them to have a chance to learn in the correctional system. He wrote this:

"If the schools tackle some of these things, the youth won't even get to see these prison gates because they won't be picking up pistols, they won't be picking up drugs and thinking that's the cool thing to do. ... It just comes right back to the same thing – education, education, education – ... you can get it the hard way [in prison] or you can get it the easy way."

Stories like Michael's and N.J.'s break my heart. While both of them thankfully have had a second chance, they represent millions of individual stories of human tragedy. This is a travesty that we can – and must – change.

We must acknowledge that the future is bleak for millions of students if we only continue to tinker around the edges with education reform.

We've had 30 years of "reform."

And while we celebrate the progress that has been made, each year there are still far too many kids falling through the cracks.

The time has expired for "reform". We need a transformation – a transformation that will open up America's closed and antiquated education system.

If we really want to help students, then we need to focus everything about education on individual students – funding, supporting and investing in them. Not in buildings; not in systems.

It shouldn't matter where a student learns so long as they are actually learning.

It shouldn't matter if learning takes place in a traditional public school, a Catholic school, a charter school, a non-sectarian private school, a Jewish school, a home school, a magnet school, an online school, any customized combination of those schools – or in an educational setting yet to be developed.

Education should measure actual mastery of subject matter, not how much time you sit in a seat or where that seat is.

Education should elevate the role of technology to fully enter the 21st century.

Education should reward outcomes, not inputs.

We must offer the widest number of quality options to every family and every child. Empowering parents with choices is how to give students second, third or fourth chances before it's too late.

Even the most expensive, state-of-the-art, high-performing school will not be the perfect fit for every single child. Parents know – or can figure out – what learning environment is best for their child, and we must give them the right to choose where that may be.

But it's not enough to promote choice simply for the sake of choice. That doesn't serve kids. If a menu is full of bad options, then do you really have a choice at all?

The point is to provide quality options that serve students so each of them can grow. Every option should be held accountable, but they should be directly accountable to parents and communities, not to Washington, DC bureaucrats.

In order to succeed, education must commit to excellence and innovation to better meet the needs of individual students. Defenders of our current system have regularly been resistant to any meaningful change. In resisting, these "flat-earthers" have chilled creativity and stopped American kids from competing at the highest levels. Our current framework is a closed system that relies on one-size-fits-all solutions. We need an open system that envelopes choices and embraces the future.

Henry Ford's assembly line was genius in its time. As Mr. Ford was famous for saying, you could get your Model T in any color you wanted, so as long as it was black. You've probably noticed that Ford has progressed a bit since then. Today, you have many, many choices both in models and in colors.

10 years ago, I was really attached to my flip phone. It was cutting edge technology, and it worked great. Today, I like my current smartphone – a lot – but I refuse to think there could never be a future improvement or a better model. We should embrace the promise of new solutions that challenge the way things currently are.

It's called progress.

If we reflexively protect our own ideas of transformation, if we shut out new ideas and new delivery methods – then we are no better than the status quo we seek to change.

We stand on the verge of the most significant opportunity we have ever had to drag American education out of the Stone Age and into the future.

We shouldn't view this, however, as a chance to mandate a one-size-fits-all school choice proposal. We all fundamentally know one size doesn't fit all...and that we won't accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers' money. We should have zero interest in substituting the current big government approach for our own big government approach.

When it comes to education, no solution, not even ones we like, should be dictated or run from Washington, DC.

Let me be clear. I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education. But those are decisions states must make. No two states are the same and no two states' approaches will be the same – and that's a good thing. States are the best laboratories of our democracy.

We're fortunate to have a President and Vice President who are strong and vocal supporters of empowering parents to make the best choices for their kids' education. And we have Congressional leadership who support equal educational opportunity.

This means we have the opportunity to get Washington and the federal bureaucracy out of the way so parents can make the right choices for their kids.

All parents instinctively know that their child should not follow the money – the money should follow their child.

The President is proposing the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation's history. The proposal's aim is to empower states and give leaders like Gov. Eric Holcomb the flexibility and opportunity to enhance the choices Indiana provides for Indiana students.

If a state doesn't want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it. If politicians in a state block education choice, it means those politicians do not support equal opportunity for all kids. They'll be the ones who will have to explain to their constituent parents why they are denying their fundamental right to choose what type of education is best for their child.

Our nation's students deserve to have their individual educations supported through state and local programs that provide parents with the most freedom and flexibility.

The drive for education choice started in the states, and it was started by caring parents from every race and political party.

In order to truly transform education, we must guard against moving into silos and regarding others with suspicion. We all share the same goal, so let's come together and work toward that goal in concert.

As long as there is one student who is being failed, one student denied access to the education that works for him or her, one student, like Michael, forced into a "dangerous daycare," then our work is not done. We cannot settle when a child's needs are not being met in the classroom. And we can't look the other way when millions of kids are passed along to the next grade, whether they're prepared or not.

This is a seminal opportunity to transform our nation's education system; a once-in-a-generation opportunity to profoundly benefit millions of children; an unprecedented moment to shape the future of our nation.

Our cause is both right and just. You and I know the fight will not be easy. The opponents of modernizing our education system will pull out all the stops. They will not go quietly into the night.

But we should take heart, because our reasons for fighting are noble. Our reasons are represented in this room – by Denisha, by Reyna, and by all other students who are here tonight.

These students – and millions and millions more just like them – from every race, from every background, from our cities, our suburbs and rural America – they are why we care; they are why we fight; they are why we will never, ever back down in our effort to give them the great education they deserve.

Thank you for your work, for your passion and for your unwavering commitment to equal opportunity for all students. Now is the time to double down on behalf of all of them.

I'm grateful for you and the opportunity to be with you.

May God bless you and our great nation.