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DeVos tells conservative lawmakers what they like to hear: More local control, school choice

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos blasted Washington, teachers unions and “defenders of the status quo” Thursday as she pledged to shrink the role of the federal government in U.S. schools and colleges.

“This drives the big-government folks nuts, but it’s important to reiterate: Education is best addressed at the state, local and family levels,” DeVos said, winning applause from lawmakers gathered in Denver for the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Conference (ALEC), an influential group known for promoting conservative policy goals nationwide.

DeVos has long been an ardent proponent of giving states more power over education, but in recent weeks, some conservatives have questioned her moves as the Education Department began reviewing state plans to implement a far-reaching new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

State officials viewed some of the department’s feedback as overreaching and the criticism nitpicking, seemingly out of line with DeVos’s pledge to get Washington out of the way. In her remarks Thursday, she assured state legislators nationwide that she had no intention of overstepping and that she is seeking ways to shrink the federal footprint in education.

“The time of inefficient, top-down, one-size-fits-all mandates is over,” DeVos said. “This approach does not work, it has not worked, and it will never work.”

It was a friendly crowd for an education secretary who has become one of the most visible and controversial members of President Trump's Cabinet. On Wednesday, hundreds gathered in downtown Denver to protest what they described as DeVos's efforts to undermine public education, according to the Denver Post.

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Debbie Lesko, a Republican state senator from Arizona who interviewed DeVos on stage Thursday, called her remarks “refreshing” after eight years of Democratic control of the Education Department.

“We absolutely love what you have to say,” Lesko said.

DeVos spent 30 years lobbying state lawmakers to expand school choice, and as education secretary she is pushing an agenda that ALEC — which has been a key force backing legislation allowing for charter schools, virtual schools, private-school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships — embraces.

She urged state legislators to continue working for more and larger choice programs, saying the “next reforms won’t originate from Washington, D.C. — they’ll come from you.”

The Trump administration proposed spending $1.25 billion to expand school choice next fiscal year, but that proposal appears to be headed nowhere. House Republicans have rejected the new investment in their appropriations bill.

DeVos took aim at teachers unions during her speech Thursday, repeatedly referring to them as “defenders of the status quo” that don’t have the best interest of children at heart. She pointed to a tweet from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) that criticized her for saying that public money should be invested in individual students and arguing instead that “we should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.”

"I couldn't believe it when I read it, but you have to admire their candor," she said. "They've made it clear that they care more about a system, one created in the 1800s, than they do about individual students. . . . What exactly is education, if not an investment in students?"

Miles away in Washington, Randi Weingarten — president of the AFT and one of DeVos’s most relentless critics — attacked the education secretary as a “public school destroyer” whose push for school choice and proposals to shrink federal education funding harms the students DeVos says she wants to help.

Weingarten, speaking in Washington before hundreds of AFT members at the union’s annual meeting, said “school choice” is a term that has long been used to “cloak overt racism,” recalling how school districts in the South used school choice as a tool of massive resistance after the Supreme Court deemed segregated schools unconstitutional.

Prince Edward County in Virginia, for example, closed its public schools and then gave white families vouchers they could use for private school tuition.

“Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment, are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation,” Weingarten said. “We are in the same fight, against the same forces, who are keeping the same children from getting the public education they need and deserve.”

Weingarten's remarks echoed a recent report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress titled, "The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers." Voucher proponents said it is unfair and offensive to draw a line between modern school choice and efforts to perpetuate segregation — particularly given that many students who take advantage of choice programs are low-income and nonwhite.