The Big Idea is a series that asks top lawmakers and figures to discuss their moonshot — what’s the one proposal, if politics and polls and even price tag were not an issue, they’d implement to change the country for the better?
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been a longtime champion for school choice, but the coronavirus pandemic that shuttered schools nationwide put her vision to give students more education options into greater focus.
"This period of time with the pandemic is really helping encourage a lot of new thinking about the way we've always done things," DeVos said in an interview with Fox News.
As DeVos and the Trump administration insisted schools reopen this fall for in-person instruction, she also backed school choice funding within the pandemic relief response she says could help students stuck with closed schools find new opportunities.
The $300 billion Senate Republican coronavirus relief proposal contained several school choice efforts, including the creation of a federal education tax credit worth $5 billion annually to help students attend private schools.
Had the legislation passed, private schools on the brink of closing may have been spared and parents scrambling to find in-person schooling would have had access to financial help, DeVos said.
"This COVID crisis has laid bare the fact that families with means are always going to figure out a solution because they have those financial resources," DeVos said. "The ones without -- those kids are the ones who are going to get hurt the most. And we need to ensure that those parents have the choices and the opportunity to make those choices."
DeVos shared her overall vision for school choice in America and rethinking government funding for education in an interview with Fox News.
Q: What is your big idea?
Devos: The big idea would be that everything about education from the earliest age until you didn't need or want to learn anything anymore is focused solely on the student. And it is really student-led and student-directed.
It's a very different reality from what we have today. But that's what I think would be healthy for our country and healthy for every single individual, every single student.
Q: If the education system was reformed to be student-driven and have widespread school choice, how do you think that would benefit students?
DeVos: First, it would allow students to pursue things that are particularly interesting to them, things about which they're passionate and also explore new disciplines or new ideas. Instead, what we have now is a one-size-fits-all approach for too many students. And if you don't fit into that box, you very quickly become bored or you act out or you mentally check out.
You need to look no further than our continued results on tests vis-à-vis the rest of the world. America continues to be sort of the mushy middle in terms of our achievement levels. Or look at our NAEP scores. The Department of Education was stood up 40 years ago with the expressed goal of closing the achievement gaps. The achievement gaps have not closed one bit. In fact, they've opened more by some measures. And yet, we've spent over a trillion dollars just at the federal level alone to try to close that. So instead of having a one-size-fits-all approach, let's step back and do things really differently.
Q: With education funding largely coming from the state/local level, in a perfect school choice world, would you envision both the federal and state/local funding be funneled to students rather than institutions?
Devos: Absolutely. I like to envision kids with their backpacks going off to wherever their education is. And they carry those resources -- that money that is invested in them -- in that backpack for whatever works for them. Families today across America are more aware than ever of what their schools are or aren't doing and what their kids are or aren't learning. And so we're seeing a lot of creativity. We're seeing a lot more home school consortiums, learning pods with other families getting together, hiring tutors or teachers to help. Let's help add fuel to that fire and allow more of this creativity to take root by ensuring the families have the money, the resources to be able to do it and make those choices for each of their kids.
Q: Under this school-choice model, how much money is in each backpack that kids would tote around?
Devos: Only about 8% of K-12 funds come from the federal government. And the bulk of funding for K-12 education comes from the states. We know that on average we spend about $12,500 per student per year. That varies greatly between locations. But just envision a hefty portion of that being essentially in a backpack for parents to take for the best solution for their child. And I think one can quickly envision how we would soon have a much more robust menu of opportunities and options for parents and kids to avail themselves of.
Q: On the federal level, how do you want to change that funding stream so that it is student-driven versus institution driven?
Devos: Congress has been considering additional coronavirus relief packages. And just last week, 52 Republican members of the Senate voted to advance coronavirus legislation that contains a significant school choice piece. (The measure failed because no Democrats joined the GOP for the 60 votes needed). It contained immediate funds for kids that are in schools that are at risk of closing -- mostly small faith-based schools that are at risk of closing because of the economic impact. And for the longer term, it had the establishment of a federal tax credit that would come alongside states' efforts or encourage states to actually adopt some school choice measures. (The provisions were adopted from the School Choice Now Act). Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., introduced the school-choice bill in the Senate and a companion bill has been introduced in the House with bipartisan support. That legislation would help really prime the pump in a major way for families to be able to exercise these options.
Q: In terms of getting this done, what do you think are your biggest obstacles to enacting school choice?
Devos: The biggest obstacle is the teachers union that has continued to defend the status quo. They're very focused on adult issues and adult jobs, not on what is best for students. And they continue to stand in the way of progress and apply political pressure at the expense, frankly, of kids. It's always the kids who are most vulnerable that are the ones that bear the brunt of it. And so they continue to be the biggest obstacle to the kind of reforms that we need to embrace.
Q: One of the criticisms is that these school choice provisions hurt public schools, which educate all students and serve as an important community institution. How do you respond?
Devos: The fallacy there is the notion that the only kind of school that does serve the community and does serve the broader population is one that is government-run. And I think that is a fallacy.
But I also would say that in states where we have a lot more choices, such as Florida, what has happened is the traditional public schools have continued to improve ... The child going to the choice school does better and the individuals in the traditional school find that they will make decisions they might not have made before to make changes because they now have something to benchmark themselves against. And so everyone ultimately benefits, particularly the kids. We see this in every other area of life where there is competition everything ultimately gets better because you do have comparison. You do have someone else or something else to benchmark against.
DeVos: What they like to do is obfuscate and actually lie about issues like this. The tax credit would be a credit for a voluntary contribution made by individuals or businesses to a scholarship fund. States that chose to participate would then grant out to families. And most of these programs in states that have adopted them already are means-tested. And so they are targeted to be benefiting families with lower- to lower-middle-income families. And so it is absolutely a fallacy to say that anyone who is wealthy would benefit. No, it would be a decision on the part of any individual who pays a federal tax to be able to redirect a small portion of that into scholarship funds to benefit other people's kids.
Q: If there were complete school choice for students, how do you think that would look five or 10 years out? Would you have more private institutions? Would you have fewer public schools or would you have more home schooling? What does this new vision of American education look like?
Devos: I think it's almost impossible to say exactly what it would look like five or 10 years from now. But I think we can get a little glimpse of what it might look like to some extent by looking at the state of Florida, where for over 20 years now, they have continually invested more in choices and education options for the families there. And what we're seeing is a wide variety of approaches for schooling, for education. We're seeing better results for kids across the board.
We can continue to foster that by enacting this provision at the federal level, but also by continuing in states to encourage bold moves on the part of state legislatures and governors to really ensure that various states are beginning to offer those same kinds of opportunities. This period of time, which has encouraged more families to think more creatively out of necessity, will really help to foster more of those kinds of creative approaches, be it home schooling or these small micro-schools, learning pods or other kinds of dynamics that families come up with that are really going to engage their kids in new and meaningful ways.
This Q and A has been edited for clarity and brevity.