“I think the last six months have really revealed the fact that the system that most students have been a part of has been a very static, one-size-fits-all system that is unable in way too many cases to pivot, to be nimble and flexible and to adjust to new and different circumstances,” she said.
“And I think this is a good thing because I think it’s going to really force changes that should have happened many years ago. And most of that’s going to happen when families themselves are empowered to make those choices and those changes and those decisions.”
She also lamented that legislation intended to expand school choice that has been introduced in the House and Senate has failed to get attention from the mainstream media. (That’s no surprise; thousands of bills are introduced in Congress each year — nearly 9,000 bills and joint resolutions in 2019 — and most don’t get mentioned in news reports.)
The school choice legislation, the School Choice Now Act, calls, among other things, for $5 billion to fund a tax-credit program that would benefit companies and individuals who contribute to scholarships so families can use tax dollars for private schools. Trump and DeVos have asked Congress to fund the $5 billion tax-credit program before; a majority of legislators have shown no interest in such a program.
The Michigan billionaire has for decades been a leader in the movement to open and expand alternatives to traditional public schools. Those include charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — as well as voucher and similar programs that use taxpayer money for private and religious schools. She has referred to traditional public schools as “a dead end” and labeled America’s public education system a “monopoly.”
DeVos says families should have options beyond their neighborhood public schools and should not be trapped in low-performing schools. Her critics accuse her of wanting to privatize public education, which many see as America’s most important civic institution. They say alternatives drain money from school districts that enroll the vast majority of students.
Friday was just the latest example of DeVos pushing her agenda during the pandemic. She has pushed a few times to use funds that Congress approved for schools in its $2 trillion coronavirus relief package to further school choice.
In May, while school districts were struggling with the conversion to remote education, she announced she was using $180 million of federal relief aid to create a competition for states to apply for “rethinking” education. The first priority in the Rethink K-12 Education Model grant program is “Continued Learning Parent Microgrants,” which would give money to families so they can “access high-quality remote learning options” that can be public or private schools or providers. The “microgrants” sound similar to vouchers.
After the grant program was announced, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House subcommittee that funds the Education Department, slammed DeVos for pursuing her school choice agenda with coronavirus relief money:
“At best, the secretary is exploiting emergency relief legislation to insert secretarial priorities not outlined in this section of the Cares Act. At worst, the secretary is deliberately misreading the law to conjure up purposes for these resources that were not provided in … the law.”
In July, a controversial DeVos rule went into effect that dictates how coronavirus relief aid should be apportioned to private schools. Two federal judges in the past week have issued preliminary injunctions on the order, saying the Education Department ignored the obvious intent of Congress.
DeVos isn’t the first education secretary to find a silver lining in a disaster.
Back in 2010, Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s long-serving education secretary, made these comments, for which he apologized a few days later: “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’ ”
The long-troubled New Orleans school system was replaced with a collection of charter schools.
Here is what DeVos said on SiriusXM on Friday:
“We highly value education as a nation and again, I think the last six months have really revealed the fact that the system that most students have been a part of has been a very static, one-size-fits-all system that is unable in way too many cases to pivot, to be nimble and flexible and to adjust to new and different circumstances.And I think this is a good thing because I think it’s going to really force changes that should have happened many years ago. And most of that’s going to happen when families themselves are empowered to make those choices and those changes and those decisions.And I think about a really important bill that’s been introduced in both, now both, houses of Congress, called School Choice Now, which would help families who are more vulnerable and don’t have the resources that many better-off families have had, to go and make these decisions on what’s best for their child. This would empower many other families to be able to do the same thing, and it was just introduced this week in the House, and there was bipartisan support in introducing the bill.And yet there hasn’t been any mainstream media attention paid to it. Parents are demanding that they have choices, and whether the system wants to acknowledge it or not, is becoming less and less relevant because the demand is continuing to increase.”