Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) – During a Hoover “fireside chat” in Hauck Auditorium, Tad and Dianne Taube Director Condoleezza Rice interviewed Betsy DeVos about her newly released book, Prisoners No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child, which details the former secretary of education’s tenure during the Trump administration.
DeVos described her career as a school choice advocate, which began three decades prior to her service in Washington. When her eldest son was about to start kindergarten, DeVos and her husband sought quality education opportunities near their home in western Michigan. They eventually discovered a Christian academy that provided a nurturing environment for children, where they were also subject to high academic standards. DeVos’s experience motivated her to become a volunteer in that school, although her son would ultimately attend kindergarten at another institution.
DeVos explained that the school where she volunteered survived entirely on private funds, and that she was disheartened that most families in the area could not afford its tuition rates. Meanwhile, government policies limited children’s learning opportunities to their local public schools. This led DeVos to create scholarship funds for the school and throughout Michigan and ultimately to become an activist for school choice at the statewide level.
“Over a period of time, I realized that just making an emotional appeal or a logical appeal was not going to make the difference in policy,” DeVos told Rice. “What really was needed was political muscle.”
DeVos argued that the school system is the “least disrupted industry in America.” Its model, originally intended to prepare students for the nineteenth-century’s industrial era, has remained ossified, even while the economy has fundamentally changed over the past century and a half. In recent decades, the system has not adequately served the needs of students. Despite that the federal government spends more than any other country on K–12 education, American students rank thirteenth in reading and eighteenth in math worldwide.
COVID-19 has exacerbated disturbing trends in American K–12 learning, but as DeVos contends, the pandemic has uncovered enormous opportunities for reform in the school system. Following school shutdowns in early 2020, many parents were awakened to the poor quality of their children’s education, especially as they struggled through remote learning.
“The family is the primary place of responsibility for a child’s education, and many parents have realized this, perhaps for the first time, after this experience in the last couple of years,” said DeVos.
Changing education at the school and district levels is not enough, as powerful teachers’ unions continue to be obstacles to reform, DeVos believes. Alternatively, families can best achieve education freedom for their children through the policy leadership of their governors and state legislators.
States like Arizona are leading the way to education freedom, DeVos argues. Its state legislature recently passed a bill that, if signed by the governor, would allow families to receive most of their per-pupil funding through an Educational Savings Account (ESA). These monies would follow their child wherever they decide to attend school.
DeVos maintained that this model presents opportunities for students to customize learning in a manner that best suits their needs, talents, and interests. It also recognizes that there are multiple pathways to career success. Students don’t all have to attend four-year colleges, where tuition has become increasingly expensive. Instead, education can be tailored for students to study as apprentices or in short-term certification programs, in which they can acquire skills for high-paying and meaningful work in the future.
DeVos addressed headlines that were made following a recent interview, in which she floated the idea of shutting down the Department of Education, which she once led. Despite spending trillions of dollars in grants and expanding its regulatory control over the nations’ schools since it was established over forty years ago, the department has not proven that its efforts have narrowed gaps in student achievement. She maintains that education is best administered by state and local governments, and that the department’s authority over civil rights matters can be taken over by other agencies within the federal government.
DeVos concluded her remarks by addressing the Trump administration’s reforms on how cases of sexual misconduct are adjudicated on university and college campuses under Title IX statutes. She maintained that the Obama-era rules, which the Biden administration intends to reinstate and expand, unfairly denied rights of the accused and didn’t allow individuals who were harmed to have a voice in how they wanted to pursue cases.
“The [Obama] administration had issued a letter that effectively set up kangaroo courts for adjudicating these processes. It did not have the force of law, but it was implemented in a way that it did,” said DeVos. “We went through the very lengthy regulatory process to set up a fair and predictable framework that guaranteed due process.”