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Betsy DeVos: Why the US Department of Education Should Be Abolished

America’s current education system is antiquated, wasteful, and “bent on saving and serving itself,” argues former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

She is one of the very few department heads to have advocated for the abolition of the agency she ran. Education gaps have only widened since the establishment of the federal Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter, she says.

Two years of remote learning have now put children months, if not years behind during this pandemic. “You couple the learning losses with the mental health challenges, and you have a disaster looming,” she says.

DeVos is the author of the new book, “Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child.” Tonight, she breaks down creative new approaches to schooling being adopted in states like Florida and Arizona that could soon change the game for millions of children across America.

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Jan Jekielek:

Betsy DeVos, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Ms. Betsy DeVos:

Thank you, Jan. It’s great to be with you.

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s been several years since we spoke last. You were the Secretary of Education at the time and you were getting, I think it’s an understatement to say a ton of flack for just about anything that you were trying to do. And now, you’ve written about it in your book. What is it like to be outside of government now? How has your life changed?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, I’ve been busy writing this book, which is about how we actually fix American education. And it’s been very, I would say, energizing and cathartic at the same time. And I’m continuing to advocate for kids and for their family’s ability to direct their own child’s education as I had for 30 years before I went to Washington.

So in that regard, not much has changed. I just am able to do it now with a different perspective and a different set of experiences. I’m working with governors and state legislators and some of our federal elected officials as well to really promote and advance policies that are going to empower families to do just that.

Mr. Jekielek:

So tell me about this different perspective. What is it that you, what were the big lessons of being in an administration?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, it only confirmed further for me what I knew before even going there, and that is the federal government does not do education well. It is not involved in education in a good and positive and constructive way. It is really the purview of the family and the most local units of government that really have to be able to take charge of and control for the kids’ education.

And we’re seeing this happen now in more meaningful ways across the country with Arizona being the most recent state, the first state to enact a universal education freedom policy, which is going to change the life trajectories for thousands of kids in that state. I’m very excited about that. I’m also excited about how that’s going to continue to build momentum in other states for the policy changes necessary to do that same thing.

Mr. Jekielek:

And so it’s interesting to me, because you are the head of a large federal department. Of course, education is left to the states, but there’s been all sorts of federal mechanisms created to be able to influence the states with time, right?

Ms. DeVos:

Yes. Well, people often don’t realize the fact that only eight percent or nine percent of funding for K-12 education comes from the federal government and yet the regulations and all of the policies that directly impact state and local education are far beyond that eight percent or nine percent. And so there are a lot of strings attached to the money that the government sends and funds for K-12 education.

I contend that that money is better spent when directed by families from the state level as well. I use the metaphor of a backpack. Kids go to school every day with the stuff they need for the day. Metaphorically, we should attach the funds that are already being spent on that child to that child’s backpack, for that family to figure out, is their assigned school working for them? If not, let’s figure out where [it] is going to work.

And K-12 education is the least disrupted industry in our country. And it is an industry. We spend $750 billion a year on K-12 education, and we continue to get poorer and worse results in spite of the fact of spending more and more and more money. If we would empower families with those resources to make those buying decisions, we will get the creativity and ingenuity and entrepreneurship we need in K-12 learning experiences that we haven’t had to date with a 175-year-old industrial model approach.

Mr. Jekielek:

What place is there, if any, for a federal department of education? I’ve had someone on the show very recently who simply said, “Do away with it all.”

Ms. DeVos:

I concur with that. I think the department should not exist. It was a payoff to the teachers unions that Jimmy Carter made in 1979 or ’76 when he was running for election. And it was actually affected or implemented in 1979. We have since then spent over $1 trillion at the federal level alone with the express goal of closing the achievement gaps. Not only have those gaps not narrowed one little bit, by most measures they’ve actually widened.

And so there is no compelling reason for having a federal department of education. There are a couple of laws that we need to make sure are followed, protecting civil rights and making sure children with disabilities have the kinds of support they need. But those don’t need to exist in a federal department. They can exist in another already established department and be overseen very well in those places. The federal department of education does not add any value to kids’ educations.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’re perhaps the first department head I’m aware of who’s advocating for the abolition of the department that they headed.

Ms. DeVos:

I did while I was there. I said, I would be very happy to work myself out of a job. And in fact, the last two budgets that we presented to Congress actually sought to block grant all of the funds to the states and local districts. Congress didn’t take it up seriously to even debate it. I hope they do.

I think it’s a very worthy discussion, particularly with how we’ve seen the system act and respond this last two years when families have had a front row seat to see firsthand the failings of the system.

Mr. Jekielek:

I want to talk about this Arizona law that you mentioned earlier. It’s obviously a major development. Before we go there, I just want to touch a little bit on this past administration. You actually quit following January 6th. You said that President Trump had crossed the red line. I want to give you a chance just to say your piece, like what exactly happened so people understand what your position was very clearly before we continue.

Ms. DeVos:

Well, to put it a little more in context, following the election in November, during the rest of November and December when there was debate happening around a second COVID relief package, there was a very real opportunity to get a school choice, education freedom provision included in that bill. But The White House was not focused on doing those kinds of things and advocating for that kind of policy.

And so what could have been wasn’t, and my role, my job, focusing on doing the right things and everything we could for students, I’d pretty much come to the end of what we could possibly accomplish. And on January 6th, when I saw what was happening and I didn’t hear the president say the things that he could have or should have said, at least what I felt, to put an end to what was happening.

And when he turned his back on his vice president, it was kind of a line in the sand for me. I also felt we should have been taking victory laps about all of the accomplishments of the administration, of which there were so many. And instead we were focused on this. And so I’m always a forward looking person. That’s what I continue to do. And that’s what I think we need to do.

Look ahead. Let’s learn from what we did in the past, but let’s keep moving forward and doing the right thing for, in my case, the right thing for kids and more broadly the right thing for Americans.

Mr. Jekielek:

So again, you started talking about this Arizona law. A number of people are saying this is groundbreaking. There’s been nothing like this before. So, tell me a bit about this law. Do you see this as the future for the American child and where should it go from here?

Ms. DeVos:

Yes, so the Education Savings Account is what Arizona just passed and Governor Ducey signed into law. That means that for all 1.1 million students in Arizona, if their families decide that the school to which they’re assigned is not working for them, they can take 90 percent of what the state would spend on that child and use it to buy that child’s education.

They could use it to go to a different school, one that requires tuition, a faith-based school or another private school of some sort. Or they could use it to customize their child’s education and maybe buy a couple of classes at one place, maybe buy a virtual class, maybe a couple of classes at a charter school, let’s say. Any combination of those things, or perhaps some things that haven’t yet even been developed.

In Arizona during the lockdowns, there were many families, many of them in the urban areas that started to band together in small cadres or consortiums of families and basically start up what I would refer to as a 21st century one-room schoolhouse with multi-age kids. They would hire a teacher that was looking for a different experience. And for them, if that’s working, they need to have the opportunity to continue to pursue that kind of experience for their children.

And like I said, the system has been one size fits all for 175 years. We haven’t really wrapped our heads around what education in the K-12 years could really look like for kids, because we haven’t had the kind of creativity that we’ve seen in every other industry. This in Arizona, and I think there will be other states that will soon follow, we’re going to see that creativity really fostered and growing in ways that we can’t predict today.

Mr. Jekielek:

So you’re just making me think of something bizarre that I heard fairly recently. Basically, in a school where all the teachers were not in school. This is in New York. One of the moms is describing this situation. The parents banded together and created one of these schoolhouses in that same school. And they said, how bizarre an experience was that? The teachers couldn’t come and actually, some of these teachers were somehow involved in the creation of this as well.

So on the one hand, the actual system wasn’t really functioning except perhaps virtually, although, certainly not at a hundred percent. And on the other hand, there were people creating these sorts of things. In some cases, even employing people that were involved in the educational system in the first place. What do you make of this?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, I think it’s just one example of people finding solutions to problems. And I’ve used the example recently of a small school that I’m familiar with in West Michigan. I live in Michigan. It’s cold in the winter in Michigan. And yet there’s this small school where the kids are outside all day, all year long and they’re learning outside and they choose to do this. It is an outdoor school by design. And the teachers who are there are choosing to be there.

And I use it as one small example of thinking about solutions that we need to be much more open to because we know kids learn differently. They have different needs. And parents again have had front row seats to that in the last couple of years. And they’ve seen if distance learning was just the ticket for their child or if it was a disaster. They’ve seen in many cases, curriculums that they didn’t want their children to be exposed to.

And in other cases, they’ve seen curriculums that were very low in their expectations of what a child could do. And the parents may know that their child is capable of much more. They should have the opportunity to find the solution that’s going to work for that child to unlock that child’s full potential.

Mr. Jekielek:

For all intents and purposes, from everyone that I’ve heard, distance learning didn’t work for most kids. It worked for a few kids that were very self-directed, but it didn’t work for most of them. And the other part of the previous question, these teachers weren’t in school. And so this is one of the reasons the parents had to start organizing. But what about the fact that these teachers weren’t in school in the first place? There’s a lot of contention about that, right?

Ms. DeVos:

And I think many of them had longed to be in school. They knew that their kids were falling further and further behind, but the system in many cases precluded them from doing that. There were a lot of teachers who I think have walked away from teaching because they’ve become so frustrated by the system.

And in an education freedom environment like Arizona is just creating, teachers are going to become the most valued part of that equation. And there are going to be opportunities for them like they’ve never seen before. Opportunities for them to be really creative themselves about solving problems for families and kids, or addressing needs.

And I’m just very excited about what it can mean for students in Arizona and more broadly, how it’s going to continue to drive change. Because we know that this is a very winning issue for families, for everyone … Like three out of four Americans say, “Money for students should follow the student to where that student goes to school.” You cannot deny the power behind that sentiment.

And when that actually happens at a scale to really make a difference, again, we’re going to see creativity and experiences for kids in their K-12 learning that we haven’t even begun to dream of because we’re just so stuck in this one-size-fits-all old model that is no longer working for way too many kids across the country.

Mr. Jekielek:

You’re expecting because of this new legal structure around the funding for students, all sorts of new models will spring up. Teachers will be able to enter them, figure new things out. It’s sort of like this innovation land in education.

Ms. DeVos:

Absolutely, absolutely. And Florida is one state where they’re farthest along with the greatest number of students. They’re going to continue to expand those opportunities for kids. But we’re only at the tip of the iceberg as to what that could look like.

Mr. Jekielek:

I want to touch a little bit more on this—the learning during the pandemic. I think you were urging schools to open very early on. And I think you even threatened to withhold funding as part of the urging, so to speak. How did that end up playing out in the end?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, there was no ability to withhold funding at the federal level. But we did everything we could as an administration to urge and encourage schools, systems, all of those involved to find the solutions, to get kids back to learning.

And again, we don’t even begin to understand the breadth and magnitude of the learning loss and the impact, the negative impact on kids, particularly the most vulnerable kids, low income kids, many kids from minority families. They’re the ones who have been most hurt by the system’s behavior during the pandemic. And you couple the learning losses with the mental health challenges, and you have a disaster looming.

Again, this is the ideal time for states to change their policy, to support funds going to the families for their children’s education, not to systems or buildings that are going to simply double down on doing the same thing, the same way over and over again, with more money and expect different results. It’s not going to happen. It hasn’t happened in the last 30 years. It’s not going to happen tomorrow because the system is bent on saving and serving itself.

Mr. Jekielek:

This is something that’s been really troubling me. This arguably a generational crisis caused by these two years for some students of almost a complete loss of education. I forget what the numbers are exactly. But some significant percentage of students is almost a complete loss in the prime of their lives, so to speak, or their childhood lives. One way to deal with it is to adopt new, innovative methods. But have you thought about how America and frankly, every country that’s faced this is actually going to deal with this?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, I believe you’re only going to deal with it when you interject creativity and entrepreneurship into it to solve problems because you are not going to get a different result by doing the same thing. And we’ve seen families actually start to address these issues because they did so out of necessity during the pandemic. We should support those and many more who are suddenly attracted to something different because they’ve seen the opportunities.

And the reality is that the traditional system or systems, they’re going to ultimately make changes because they’re going to see the competition. They’re going to have benchmarks to be able to compare themselves to, they’re going to make changes that are ultimately going to benefit kids too. But you have to allow for the families to make those choices and those decisions in order to foster that kind of change.

Mr. Jekielek:

Were there any policies that you instituted while you were a secretary of education that you felt just didn’t work out the way they were planned or things that you wish you had done differently now with a bit of hindsight, like looking at it?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, I wish we had been able to get the federal tax credit to support education freedom passed and accomplished. Short of that, everything else we did was really focused on doing the right thing for students. And our work on Title IX on making sure that kids, when they are on campuses and they have an issue with sexual misconduct, that they have a framework that is fair, that is balanced, that is going to treat everyone fairly and with respect, and put the one who brings it forward in control of what happens next.

That and other issues on which we regulated or dealt, those are all … The current administration, the Biden administration, is trying to undo all of those and turn us backward. This is a travesty for students, and we have to speak up. We have to push back against this effort to totally upend all of the progress that we made on behalf of students.

Mr. Jekielek:

It’s kind of a fundamentally different view of how education should function, isn’t it? We saw this debate that saw Glenn Youngkin win in Virginia.

Ms. DeVos:

And Terry McAuliffe said that parents didn’t have any business in knowing or directing what was going on in their child’s schools. I mean, he said and doubled down on it.

[Sound bite/Terry McAuliffe]:

So I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take their child, make their own decision.

[Sound bite/Speaker 4]:

You vetoed it, to our parents. You vetoed it.

[Sound bite/Terry McAuliffe]:

I stopped the bill, I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.

Mr. Jekielek:

Do you feel like that’s the MO here with undoing these pieces? Or what do you think the operating principle is here?

Ms. DeVos:

It’s a very, very left wing, far left of the Democrat party that is really driving these policies. And they are really turning back and doubling down on the disastrous policies that the Obama administration advanced. It would totally reverse everything that we did. It would also expand the definition of biological sex to gender identity, and basically anything you decide at any point in time. And it would decimate women’s sports, ultimately.

Mr. Jekielek:

So we also have this situation where there’s a lot of people that are advocating against school choice, who actually send their kids to private school. And this has always struck me as kind of a bizarre dichotomy.

Ms. DeVos:

Well, it’s total hypocrisy. It’s for people who consistently fight against low income and middle income parents being able to make these decisions. They’re making those decisions themselves. And the fact that they blatantly do so without apology is, to me, I cannot fathom it or understand it. I don’t. These are the very kids they profess to want to help. And yet they consistently protect and defend a system that denies those families those opportunities.

Mr. Jekielek:

I want to talk a little bit about higher education, about college. New York University, right now, a year is something like 80 grand, $80,000. It’s very difficult to access for the majority of Americans, or frankly, anybody. And so does that make sense?

Ms. DeVos:

No, it doesn’t make any sense. And the cost of higher education has continued to skyrocket and you saw it take off dramatically when the federal government, when they federalized student lending under the Obama administration, ostensibly to pay for Obamacare.

Not only has it not paid for anything to do with Obamacare, it has cost American taxpayers, most of whom never went to college or took out student loans, billions and billions of dollars. It is an unsustainable model. It is out of control. And now you have an administration that’s trying to wipe away all kinds of student debt.

You cannot do that. The president cannot do that. He cannot legally do that on his own. And you cannot say with a straight face that wiping out a bunch of student debt is a good policy, because it is not fair to the two out of three Americans who didn’t go to college, who will ultimately have to pay those bills. And it’s not fair to the students who took out student loans and have faithfully paid on them, or the families that save for their children to go to college, or for the veterans that served and earned their college funds.

It makes zero sense. And even if you said it did make sense and you wiped it away, where does that leave you? You haven’t solved anything. You’re going to have students next year taking out student loans and you’re going to have the same problem all over again.

So this is an issue that Congress and the administration have really got to deal with. It is unsustainable the way it has gone. There is no accountability on the part of higher ed institutions for what kind of quality or what kind of outcomes they are serving up. And there’s just no governor on what they can charge for  tuition.

Mr. Jekielek:

And for those of us uninitiated, what are the nuts and bolts of how that worked? How did that Obama policy basically create this trend?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, there used to be private lenders that were backed by the federal government for certain students. And that worked. It worked for everyone, but the federal government took over all student lending in 2010.

So they send all the student loans directly to the schools and then the schools take out what they’re going to take out. And if there’s some left over, then the students get it. But very often the students don’t understand the implications of that. And they will go and spend it on things that are not related to education, which is not a good decision either.

And so the whole model is not a logical or defensible model for the long term.

Mr. Jekielek:

But how did that actually balloon these? Just the university-

Ms. DeVos:

Well, because they’re on the government’s balance sheets as though they’re all good loans that are going to be fully repaid. And in many cases, they’re not. And in many cases, students have elected and Congress has continued to adopt all of these repayment plans that are based on a student’s income versus what they actually owe. And so they’re ultimately paying back pennies on the dollar from what they have borrowed and someone somewhere has to pay that.

Mr. Jekielek:

So I guess the big question here is, American education already prior to COVID was in rough shape. And we’ve talked a little bit about this already. And so now we have this prototype in Arizona, but we don’t know for sure how that’s going to play. What are you suggesting states do?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, I’m suggesting all states adopt policies that are going to give parents and families the freedom to direct their children’s education, to choose where their child gets their K-12 education. And I’ve cited Arizona as the most recent state, the first state to do a universal model in approach.

But there have been many other states that have been very forward leaning on this: Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio. There are a lot of states that have undertaken these programs. They’ve been at smaller scales. But Florida, as I said, is the most advanced in this, has the greatest number of students in programs, going to schools other than their assigned schools.

And interestingly, the districts where students are the highest number or percentage of students are going to schools other than their assigned school, the students who are remaining in their assigned schools are actually the outcomes. The achievement levels are actually improving.

I argue there has not been a definitive study on this, but there’s a couple of reasons, logical reasons. First, the kids have left if that school wasn’t working for them. They’re choosing to go somewhere else that is working. And the kids who are still staying there are the beneficiaries of leadership now making decisions and changes that they refuse to or wouldn’t make before, because they have other schools and other experiences now to benchmark themselves against.

And they’re actually improving opportunities for kids within the traditional schools as well. It’s a win-win for everyone. And the system that continues to defend the monopolistic government run system cannot fight back against these arguments because they are obvious and they are proliferating in many states where these policies have been adopted.

Mr. Jekielek:

So you’re very obviously against Critical Race Theory, Praxis, within education K to 12—I suspect any area. Now, what do you make of the fact that some of the most woke schools are actually the elite private schools? And so, we talk about school choice, the opportunity. Ostensibly, these are the schools that anybody would dream of coming [to], yet they’re the ones that have seemed to be hit by this ideology, perhaps the most. Obviously not empirically, but that’s what people are telling me. So what do you think of this?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, this is a problem all over the place, and that’s why I think parents need to be demanding and expecting radical transparency around curriculum. And while many of these elite private schools are experiencing the same type of phenomenon or families have finally found out about it, there are many other schools, faith-based schools in states across the country that have been doing a great job of preparing and educating students and giving families opportunities at much lower costs than these elite private schools.

Many people, when we talk about choosing a private school through an education freedom model, immediately go to these $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 a year schools. But there are many, many schools that educate children at a much lower cost, $10,000, in some cases less, and have a faith-based grounding that are doing a good job and families want to be able to make those choices as well.

And so these policies can support whatever families decide is going to be the right environment and the right setting for their kids.

Mr. Jekielek:

So you’re seeing this correlation between them being faith based and having the more classical education model, basically. That’s what you’re saying?

Ms. DeVos:

Well, there are a lot of classical models that there’s classical charter schools. There’s classical Christian schools. And that focus, I think, has been reawakened and is going to continue to grow. The opportunity to access those opportunities is only going to happen for all families if they’re empowered to make those choices with policies that support that.

Mr. Jekielek:

Got it. Any final thoughts as we finish up?

Ms. DeVos:

Just again, thanks for the opportunity to be here. My book is really about how we fix American K-12 education and how we can make learning a great experience for every child. And I hope that folks will enjoy it.

Mr. Jekielek:

Well, Betsy DeVos, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.

Ms. DeVos:

Thanks so much, Jan.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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