Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday used a speech marking the 15th anniversary of a school voucher program to blast Hollywood for not supporting a movie she likes. She also used a new term for her critics: “bullies.”

DeVos appeared at a celebration of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded school voucher program in the country. It uses public money to provide subsidies to more than 1,000 low-income families to help pay for tuition at private and religious schools.

The controversial program was signed into law in 2004 by President George W. Bush but had its funding phased out in 2009 by President Barack Obama before being restored by a Republican Congress.

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For decades, DeVos has been a big supporter of vouchers and similar programs that use public money for private and religious education. A leader in the “school choice” movement, DeVos has used her pulpit as education secretary to extol alternatives to traditional public schools. Before she was tapped by President Trump to run the Education Department, DeVos called public schools “a dead end” and has made clear, as has Trump, that the administration’s key education priority is expanding “choice” options.

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DeVos and her supporters say many public schools fail students and that families deserve alternatives. Critics say public money should not be used for religious education and that vouchers drain resources from public schools, which educate most of the United States’ schoolchildren.

Several reports in recent years on school voucher programs throughout the country show students in those programs score lower on standardized tests than their peers who don’t get vouchers. But voucher supporters say these studies don’t account for all of the benefits.

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In her speech Wednesday, DeVos described critics who oppose her school “choice” agenda as “bullies.” That agenda includes the administration’s $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarships proposal, which would be funded by individuals and businesses who would receive a federal tax credit.

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Her decision to refer to foes as “bullies” appeared to be harsher than her previous condemnations of opponents, first calling them “defenders of the status quo,” then “sycophants of the system.” She said Wednesday:

We’re here to tell all those folks on [Capitol] Hill that the Opportunity Scholarship Program works. Empowering parents and students works. Freedom works.
It’s simply common sense to us. But to the bullies whose goal is to suppress education freedom, it’s not. They’ll claim this great program is a threat to public schools. Well, since we know it equally funds traditional and charter public education, and we know that all students do better because of it, the program is clearly not a threat. It’s not a threat to anyone except maybe the bullies.
We’ve seen them protect their interests at the expense of kids. Just ask the 216 aspiring students who had their scholarships — their education freedom — taken from them in 2009.
But we’re not here for those bullies. We’re here for these students!

She also attacked Hollywood for failing to show interest in a new film called “Miss Virginia,” which tells the story of Virginia Walden Ford, a prominent black D.C. activist who fought for vouchers in the late 1990s and 2000s so her son could go to a private school. As Washington Post reporter Perry Stein wrote, the movie’s villain is a fictitious D.C. congresswoman who appeared to be based on Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), a longtime opponent of vouchers.

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The film was produced not by a well-known Hollywood moviemaker but by Moving Picture Institute, which is financially backed by the Mercer Family Foundation, a major donor to Republicans, according to foundation tax filings. It was released this month and shown in about a dozen theaters across the country, Stein reported, and is available on iTunes and video on demand.

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DeVos said:

"How sad it was to see folks in Tinseltown turn a blind eye to a story ready-made for Hollywood. 'Miss Virginia’ should be in bright lights on every marquee across America. But Hollywood elites let their politics get in the way of advancing the greatest civil rights struggle today. Sure, they say they’re “pro-public school,” and then they choose to send their own children elsewhere. They have a choice.
Well, Virginia’s story is a poignant one. It powerfully reminds us all that parents want better for their children, and they’ll do anything for their children.
And here in our Nation’s capital, parents will persist, they will persevere, and they will win!

In 2017, shortly after DeVos became secretary, the Education Department released a report saying students who received vouchers performed worse on standardized tests within a year after entering D.C. private schools than peers who did not participate in the voucher program. In 2013, a Government Accountability Office report concluded that the local agency administering vouchers had so many faulty internal systems and missing policies it could not properly manage the program.

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Congressional Democrats have said they are concerned the private and religious schools that students attend with vouchers do not have to comply with the same safety rules and other regulations that apply to public schools. They recently requested information about how the District’s voucher program operates from the Education Department.

Here’s the full speech, as provided by the Education Department:

I’m so happy to be with all of you this morning. I especially want to thank Senator Ron Johnson, Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, Congressman Andy Harris, and Congressman Ralph Norman for your leadership on the Hill and for your commitment to education freedom. Thanks to each of you.
Parents and students, thank you for sharing your stories. You're why we're here.
You inspire all of us to keep fighting alongside you for your futures, and ours.
I am blessed and encouraged to visit with students and families whose lives have been changed by the Opportunity Scholarship Program — by education freedom. And I am highly motivated by the students and families who don’t yet have that freedom.
Education freedom is what motivated my friend — our friend — Virginia Walden Ford. Her son’s future hung in the balance.
We are so grateful for Virginia’s faith, for her courage, her perseverance, and her example. How exciting it was to see Virginia’s story dramatized for the silver screen.
And how sad it was to see folks in Tinseltown turn a blind eye to a story ready-made for Hollywood. “Miss Virginia” should be in bright lights on every marquee across America. But Hollywood elites let their politics get in the way of advancing the greatest civil rights struggle today. Sure, they say they’re “pro-public school,” and then they choose to send their own children elsewhere. They have a choice.
Well, Virginia’s story is a poignant one. It powerfully reminds us all that parents want better for their children, and they’ll do anything for their children.
And here in our Nation's capital, parents will persist, they will persevere, and they will win!
Their children win with freedom. That’s why 94 percent of D.C.'s parents who use scholarships for them are happy with their decision.
They like that their children are safe. They like that their children are learning and achieving in school. They like education freedom, and they want more of it.
That’s why we’re here today. We’re here to tell all those folks on the Hill that the Opportunity Scholarship Program works. Empowering parents and students works. Freedom works.
It’s simply common sense to us. But to the bullies whose goal is to suppress education freedom, it’s not. They’ll claim this great program is a threat to public schools. Well, since we know it equally funds traditional and charter public education, and we know that all students do better because of it, the program is clearly not a threat. It’s not a threat to anyone except maybe the bullies.
We’ve seen them protect their interests at the expense of kids. Just ask the 216 aspiring students who had their scholarships — their education freedom — taken from them in 2009.
But we’re not here for those bullies. We’re here for these students! And all the students who are waiting and hoping for a scholarship. Those who need an Opportunity Scholarship. Those who need education freedom.
This administration trusts parents and believes in students. We’ve fought for this program and now more students are receiving scholarships.
Do you know that more than half of all D.C. students attend a school other than their government-assigned one? Washington is one of the most choice-rich environments in the country, and students — no matter where they go to school — are better because of it.
But there is still so much unmet demand. We can’t stop fighting until every student in this city — and across the country — is free.
Their freedom and their futures are not political footballs. There is strong bipartisan support for this bill. I’m so encouraged to see that.
This is not a partisan issue. This transcends left or right, red or blue. This is about each student’s future, and it’s ultimately about our country’s future. Our future is won with freedom. And freedom belongs to all of us. Let’s fight for it!
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