Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be his education secretary, has some very firm views about government and education, which she articulated in a 2015 speech at the SXSWedu convention in Austin. Take this, for example: “Government really sucks, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power.”
That was one of six “inconvenient truths” that she listed, and on which she elaborated, for the crowd in an address that clearly set out her views of education in the United States: The traditional public school system is a “dead end,” and publicly funded charter, parochial and private schools should be part of an expansive “open system of choice” for families. (You can see more about the speech here and watch the video of the entire speech here.)
The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment. Ed Patru, vice president at DCI Group, who identifies himself on emails as spokesman for Friends of Betsy DeVos, a loosely affiliated group of her supporters and allies, said in an email:
As you know, nominees aren’t granting interviews by protocol and out of deference to Transition. … The speech was great and it was incredibly well-received. Donald Trump’s entire campaign was premised on the notion that government isn’t working — be it on the economy, on jobs, on foreign policy, or on education — and that a new approach is needed. The American people overwhelmingly agreed.
He also said in reference to DeVos’s comment that “government truly sucks”: “I can assure you that both her direct talk and her larger sentiment is pretty commonplace outside of the 202 area code.” (The 202 area code refers to the Washington area.)
These are six “inconvenient truths” that DeVos cited in her speech:
Inconvenient Truth No. 1 — Our education delivery system in America is antiquated and it is quite frankly embarrassing.Inconvenient Truth No. 2 — American education has been losing ground to other countries for at least half a century.Inconvenient Truth No. 3 — We are stuck in a partisan rut. The political parties are dead-enders when it comes to education revolution.Inconvenient Truth No. 4 — Government really sucks. And it doesn’t matter which party is in power.Inconvenient Truth No. 5 — We don’t pay teachers enough, and we don’t fire teachers enough.Inconvenient Truth No. 6 — In America we do NOT provide equal educational opportunity to our kids. This one is the worst of the worst.
Supporters of school choice — including charter schools (publicly funded but run independently from school districts, sometimes by for-profit companies) and vouchers (which use public funds to pay for private school tuition) are delighted with the selection of DeVos for education secretary. They say that should her nomination be approved by the Senate, which is likely, she will try to promote a broad set of alternatives to traditional public schools. Opponents, on the other hand, see her as being against traditional public education, someone who wants to privatize the public schools that educate the vast majority of children in the United States.
In her discussion of the six “inconvenient truths,” her philosophy about the public education system and how it has evolved over the years is clear. She says it is stuck in the past and that “the vast majority of the political class is committed to defending and protecting the status quo.”
When discussing her second “inconvenient truth” — “American education has been losing ground to other countries for at least half a century” — she mentions PISA scores, which refers to the Program for International Student Assessment, given to 15-year-olds in dozens of countries and education systems around the world every three years. DeVos was referring to the 2012 results, the latest available at the time she gave her speech, which showed U.S. students scoring average at best. Recently, the 2015 PISA results were released, and showed similar results. What she didn’t mention was that U.S. students have never done well on international tests, even when the public schools were not seen as negatively as many of them are by school reformers today.
Here, in her own words, is the part of her speech in which she talks about each of her “inconvenient truths.” This comes from a text of her remarks to be delivered:
Inconvenient Truth No. 1 — Our education delivery system in America is antiquated and it is quite frankly embarrassing.— Let’s take the example of the Model T.— 2nd example — Kodak.Inconvenient Truth No. 2 — American education has been losing ground to other countries for at least half a century.— The facts here are unarguable. You can see some of them on the screen, but it’s really a waste of our time to even slog through this, it’s just plain true and everyone knows it.— The one statistic I would call your attention to is this: PISA — Programme for International Student Assessment— Oh, there are always a few people in denial, there are a few who are content, and there are defenders of the status quo, but that is an intellectually indefensible position.— Not only are we falling behind collectively in relationship to other countries, we have far too many children who are straight-up failing. And they are largely concentrated in economically disadvantaged areas.— And we have too many children in middle class suburban areas that we think are doing well … but that are actually seriously underperforming.— The truth is that each and every child deserves the opportunity to fully develop their potential, and collectively, our country will not be competitive unless all kids have opportunity.Inconvenient Truth No. 3 — We are stuck in a partisan rut. The political parties are dead enders when it comes to education revolution.As long as we think political parties might solve the problem, it will never be solved.Oddly enough — Education choice is very unique in that some conservative Republicans and some liberal Democrats are actually on the same wavelength.For instance, John Boehner, Jeb Bush, Condi Rice, and Bobby Jindal are examples of Republican leaders who actually are willing to lead positively on this issue.And on the Democrat side, Mike McCurry, Dianne Feinstein, Cory Booker and Andrew Cuomo … are willing to buck their party leaders. And believe it or not, Democrats have led school choice efforts in AZ, GA, FL, NC, and okay.But those are exceptions. The vast majority of the political class is committed to defending and protecting the status quo.Now, let me get politically incorrect in discussing the political parties.Let’s start with Republicans. Many Republicans in the suburbs like the idea of education choice as a concept …right up until it means that poor kids from the inner city might invade their schools. That’s when you will hear the sentiment — “well … it’s not really a great idea to have poor minority kids coming to our good suburban schools.” Although they will never actually say those words aloud.In my home state of Michigan, one of our Republican legislators who everyone assumed was a supporter of education choice in fact came out against even the minor step of “public school choice.” His reason was that his district bordered the city of Detroit. Enough said.And just last year we saw Republicans in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Mississippi taking the lead in killing various education choice measures, all in deep red states.And now let’s talk about Democrats. Many Democrats love the idea of providing equal opportunity, right up until the moment when the teachers union leaders say “no.” When that happens, they salute and fall back into formation.It’s a perfect recipe for an intractable political standoff.Meanwhile, America falls further behind, too many kids are denied an opportunity, too many kids get substandard educations, the status quo remains, change is thwarted, and everyone loses.Let me give you a real world example of what I’m talking about, and I would like you to think about this as if we were talking about your own children. Here are your 2 choices.Alpha School is a high-performing school, with graduation rates ranging from 70-90%, depending on the year.Beta School is a low-performing school, with graduation rates hovering around 50%.If you were given the choice between Alpha School and Beta School for your children, which would you choose?If you chose Alpha School, then in Washington DC you chose a private or charter school for your kids.If you chose Beta School, then in Washington DC you chose the traditional public school.If you want to risk sending your kids to a failing school, that is certainly your choice, but why would you deny the high performing “Alpha School” choice to anyone else?And yet, our President has tried to terminate these options in Washington D.C., while at the same time he sends his daughters to an elite private school. It’s illogical, it’s hypocritical, and frankly it’s immoral.Inconvenient Truth No. 4 — Government really sucks. And it doesn’t matter which party is in power. Having been around politics and government my entire adult life, I have a five observations about government for you:— Government tends to believe in top-down solutions and government fears bottom-up solutions.— Government tends to stifle innovation and it abhors improvisation. Any good military strategist will tell you that a battle plan rarely survives past the first engagement. After that, you have to improvise to survive and to win.— Government tends to favor one-size-fits-all solutions handed down from central command.— Government likes committees … a lot. Committees kill all the really good ideas and generally all the really bad ideas. They produce middle-ground mush.— Government prefers control and tightly-defined systems. It fears entrepreneurs, open systems and crowd sourcing. All of which they find threatening.Inconvenient Truth No. 5 — We don’t pay teachers enough, and we don’t fire teachers enough.In that one sentence, I have raised the ire of both the Republican and Democrat political establishments.The Republicans don’t want to pay our best teachers enough, and the Democrats don’t want to reform tenure laws. It’s another partisan standoff.But I am willing to bet that every one of you had one or more teachers who made a big difference in your life, who opened your eyes to possibilities and to opportunities. You probably recall them in your mind’s eye right now.And likewise, I am pretty sure that every one of you had one or more teachers who should not have been teaching. That doesn’t mean they were bad people, or maybe they were, but regardless, they weren’t any good at teaching. You are probably thinking of those teachers right now.And by the way, teaching is hard. It takes a lot of skill. Not everyone who tries can do it well. We need to admit that and act accordingly.We should reward and respect great teachers by paying them more, and we should stop rewarding seniority over effectiveness.Political parties will not fix this. Republicans don’t want to pay teachers enough, and Democrats don’t want to reform tenure laws. It’s another partisan standoff.The status quo remains.Lastly, Inconvenient Truth No. 6 — In America we do NOT provide equal educational opportunity to our kids. This one is the worst of the worst.How many here believe that every child deserves an equal opportunity for a quality education?Good. But that concept is a myth in America today. We don’t provide anything of the sort, not even close.If you live in an area with quality public schools, you can most likely get a reasonable education. In most cases this means you do not live in an economically depressed area.If you don’t live in an area with good public schools, you can move to a different place, if you have the financial means to do so. If you don’t, you’re screwed.If your local public schools aren’t very good, but you have the cash, you can send your kids to a higher-performing private school. But, if you don’t have the financial resources, you are again screwed.It is not defensible that today you can predict educational outcomes by the Zip code in which someone lives.Defenders of the status quo tell you to wait and be patient, that things are improving, and that things will really improve if they can just get some more money.Really? If money was the answer we would not have a problem. And just think how incredibly arrogant it is to say to the mom of a 3rd grader — just wait, it will get better. No, her 3rd grader will only grow up once. There is no time to wait.And as we know, too many politicians and too many leaders from within the education system oppose education choice, but they use it for their own families. As my good friend Howard Fuller says — “If choice is so bad, why don’t YOU give it up for YOUR family?”For many defenders of the status quo, it’s not their ideology that bothers me, it’s their complete hypocrisy that I can’t stomach.We do not have equal educational opportunity in America. This is not just an inconvenient truth, it is immoral.