Education Secretary Betsy DeVos schooled education reporters Monday during a rare appearance at their convention in Baltimore, telling them that too many articles do not accurately portray her newest school choice program proposal. She also said that “public education” needs to be redefined and that “there is no such thing as public money.”
DeVos answered questions — or attempted to dodge them — from members of the Education Writers Association about a range of topics, including immigration, school choice, civil rights for LGBTQ students, school discipline policies and more.
What she said, and what she wouldn’t directly address when asked, revealed her broad agenda to turn America’s traditional public education system into a free market and allow parents to use taxpayer money to do whatever they want to educate their children. She has made it no secret that her top goal is to expand alternatives to the traditional public school system, which she has called “a dead end.” She doubled down on her views Monday.
Referring to the Trump administration’s proposed $5 billion education tax credit program called Education Freedom Scholarships, she said reporters incorrectly use the term “public money.” That phrase has long been used to refer to taxpayer money that the government collects to provide goods and services to the people of the United States.
In fact, she denied the existence of public money by invoking the words of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s late prime minister and a former education minister. DeVos said:
In too many stories about our proposal, I see the term “public money.” And I’m reminded of something another education secretary often said.
Margaret Thatcher said that government “has no source of money other than the money people earn themselves.” There is no such thing as “public money.” The Iron Lady was right!
Our proposal allows people to direct money they themselves have earned. They will voluntarily contribute to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships directly to students. It’s a much more effective and efficient way of getting resources to students who need them the most.
The proposed program would provide tax credits to individuals and groups that donate to help children attend the school of their choice. The donations would receive a 100 percent tax credit and could go for just about any education-related purpose that expands school choice for families.
Critics say it is part of DeVos’s effort to privatize traditional public education, a system that many consider to be the country’s most important civic institution.
The “no such thing as public money” line is a continuation of a new effort she and her allies are pursuing to attempt to redefine public education. This was clear in February, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said this about a voucher-like program that would use public money for private and religious school tuition:
An important point to make is, you know, we talk about, “This is public school, this is charters.” Look, if it’s public dollars, it’s public education. . . . In Florida, public education is going to have a meaning that is directed by the parents, where the parents are the drivers because they know what’s best for their kids.
DeVos quickly tweeted her support: “Completely agree, @GovRonDesantis.”
The education secretary’s faith in running schools like businesses was clear in her remarks Monday, in which she said that having more alternatives to traditional public schools will create “more excellence in every school.” Why? “Having competition and having comparison forces them to do things they wouldn’t have done previously.”
She said that traditional public schools in districts with the highest percentage of students in schools connected with the choice movement are “doing better as well,” although she cited no evidence. In fact, a number of systems have said they are struggling because they are losing millions of dollars in taxpayer money to charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded.
DeVos also made clear that she has little use for big government: “I entered public life to promote policies that empower all families. Notice that I said ‘families,’ not government. It should surprise no one that I am a common-sense conservative with a healthy distrust of centralized government.”
Here are some other telling things that DeVos said — and didn’t say — as she tried to skirt questions from reporters, sometimes ignoring evidence presented to her:
Asked by New York Times reporter Erica L. Green, who led a discussion with DeVos, what she thought of the teacher strikes that have rocked states for more than a year, DeVos said the teachers were not trying to solve their problems in an adult manner. She said:
I think great teachers need to be well paid. . . . I will just say that I think it’s important that adults have adult disagreements on adult time and they not ultimately hurt kids in the process, and I think too often they are doing so by walking out of classrooms and having their arguments in the way that they are.
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Reporter Matt Barnum from Chalkbeat raised the issue of immigration, referring to a new school choice program just passed by the Tennessee legislature that would use public dollars for private education. It includes a provision calling the program a state benefit and is aimed at keeping undocumented students from participating. The school choice program is likely to be challenged in court as a result of this and other provisions, some legislators warned.
The Daily Memphian reported that some Republican state senators noted that the program would exclude undocumented students and the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. And it quoted state Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican who pushed the bill, as confirming that language in the bill would exclude those students.
But DeVos wasn’t having it. She wouldn’t engage with Barnum when he asked whether she felt a tension between seeking to educate every child and the Trump administration’s policies seeking to restrict the rights of undocumented students. He also asked her thoughts about the Tennessee program. Here’s what she said:
I am thrilled that Tennessee has passed a program that will meet a lot of students’ needs. . . . With respect to the issue you raise, I acknowledge it is a difficult issue. And I think our president is right, we have a crisis. We have concerns. This is a matter for Congress to deal with in a way that is meaningful, not to continue to ignore it. But with regard to students who are here in our country, every state, every community is embracing them and acknowledging that they have the opportunity to learn along with students who are part of this country.
Barnum tried again, asking DeVos if she supports the provision in the Tennessee legislation to restrict undocumented students from participating in the new program. She said, “I don’t think that ended up as part of the program,” to which Barnum said it was his understanding that it would implicitly restrict those students.
She said: " I can’t comment on a hypothetical if it’s not part of the program. If it’s not part of the program, it’s not part of the program."
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DeVos was asked by a reporter from Arizona what she thought about charter school operators “who engage in self-dealing,” and he noted a few cases in which they had made millions of dollars in profit. She didn’t directly call out charter scams. Rather, she said:
Every state develops their own programs for governing charter schools and how charter schools can operate. And every state will deal with those who run afoul of those laws, and I applaud them when they do. We should not have any fraudulent activity — period — whether that is traditional public school construction . . . or any other kind of operation.
What everyone should stay focused on, she said, is what she deemed a significant demand for alternatives to public school systems.
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One reporter asked what she thought of a new report saying that vouchers in Louisiana had produced poor academic results and other reports finding similar effects in voucher programs elsewhere. DeVos would not accept the findings:
Thanks for the question about Louisiana. I would just say the Louisiana program was not very well conceived. It has discouraged many schools from participating in it and in fact has encouraged some schools that probably would not have been parents’ first choice if they had been given a full range of choices. But with reference to the other research around the results from vouchers or tax credits or any other mechanism to provide education choice, we see consistently that in the vast majority of cases student achievement continues to improve. That has been observed across the board, especially in states where programs have been well conceived and well constructed. I would also say very often we get focused on academic outcomes exclusively, and often parents make [school] choices for other reasons. And so I think we should probably enter those sorts of conversations into the greater equation as well, considering the fact that parents may have a range . . . of reasons in making the choice that they do for their child.
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And finally, when asked by the Times’ Green if she would stay for a second term if Trump wins the 2020 presidential election, DeVos said, “I’m not sure my husband would be okay with that.” But she didn’t say she didn’t want to.