DeVos has been a strong advocate for empowering families with school choice and more diverse options for higher education. She recently sat down with Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek to discuss her philosophy toward education and the recent initiatives and milestones achieved by the Department of Education during her tenure.
Statistics show that American children have fallen behind dramatically relative to their peers internationally. The United States ranked 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science, according to 2015 data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a widely used test to compare education levels globally.
“It’s just not acceptable,” said DeVos. “And for 50 years, at the federal level, we have invested over $1 trillion” in an attempt to narrow the achievement gap between those at the highest and lowest ends of the spectrum. “Over $1 trillion later, that gap has not narrowed one bit. So the solution is not more resources from the federal level. It’s really doing something completely different, and giving parents and students the freedom they need to pursue the right fit for their education in K-12.”
DeVos first became involved in education when her first son was starting kindergarten and she began volunteering with a small faith-based school in Michigan. “The more I got involved, the more I realized that for all the students and families who were there,” there were “10 or 20 other students’ families who wished that their children could be at that school,” DeVos said. She realized that it was a problem that could not be solved by merely increasing scholarship aid, but would require a fundamental change in policy.
“It was just unjust that I could make those decisions for my children but these other families, these other parents weren’t able to make those decisions. So that got me involved with really advocating for more education freedom and empowerment for families,” DeVos said.
While more well-to-do families can choose to move to a new locale with a better school for their children, other families lack the financial means to do so and are forced to accept the sometimes ailing public school system in their local area. “There are kids in schools today in assigned schools that are failing miserably because they are not in the right place educationally for them.”
The concept of education freedom, DeVos argues, is about empowering families to have the ability to choose schools that will be the right fit for them. DeVos has been a strong champion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. “There’s over a million kids on the waitlist for charter schools nationally,” she says, and their popularity is indicative of parent and student satisfaction.
Multiple Pathways to Higher Education
“This administration, this President really believes that students need to find the best path for them beyond high school. Today we have over 8 million jobs going unfilled in our country, many of them not requiring four-year college degrees…There’s a mismatch,” said DeVos.
DeVos and her administration have worked to alleviate this discrepancy, promoting access to career and technical education opportunities.
“We look at higher education as like a highway, with lots of off-ramps and on-ramps and off-ramps to go and get additional learning and additional training or skills to then get back on and into a lane of your choosing…We really need to approach education today as a lifelong learning proposition,” she said.
“This is a rapidly changing world and education has got to be nimble and flexible right along with the rest of the world,” DeVos said.
She has issued a proposal to loosen federal standards for accreditation, in order to foster more innovation and eliminate bureaucratic excess.
“When implemented, there will be more opportunities for more suppliers of higher education to have a much wider array of offerings to meet students’ needs, meet students where they are, whether it’s a competency-based approach that you can go through and earn a credential or a degree or a certification as quickly as possible or do it over the course of time while you’re holding down a full-time job and raising a family…really bringing in a lot more alternate and creative approaches to meeting the needs of students of all ages.”
“The whole reform of accreditation and allowing for a lot more innovation and creativity in the higher ed world, I think, is also going to bring forward providers who will not be as high cost,” DeVos said.
In the face of mounting student debt in America, she hopes Americans can more seriously consider the value of an expensive program before choosing it. As part of this initiative, the Department of Education’s new Free Application for Federal Student Aid app includes information about the costs of different programs, likely earning potential, and real-time information about their student debt.
“The goal of this administration is to really support students in a lifelong learning journey in pathways that are going to fit and be right for them and give them every opportunity to live full and meaningful lives, with their families and in their communities and ultimately as contributors to our greater society,” said DeVos.
A Federal Tax Credit
One major initiative of the Department of Education is the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) and in the Senate by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). If passed, it would greatly expand educational opportunities for students by offering a federal tax credit to individuals and businesses who donate to scholarship funds. These funds could then be directed by students and their families towards the right education fit for them.
“We’ve encouraged people to think very broadly about what these choices look like. Maybe it’s dramatically increased dual enrollment opportunities, early college learning opportunities while they’re in high school. Maybe it’s apprenticeships in high school. Maybe it’s more career-in-technical-education opportunities in high school. It could be course choice.
“If you’re living in a small rural community that cannot afford to have a particular class and doesn’t have enough students for a particular class with a teacher, you could bring in that course choice for that. You know, the student could choose to buy a course with the greatest teacher located in Singapore perhaps,” DeVos said.
The funding comes through taxpayers voluntarily contributing to scholarship organizations. DeVos emphasized that it was “not a new program or new department or new bureaucracy.” Instead it is a “simply a tax credit pool that individuals or companies could contribute to as part of their federal tax bill for the year,” DeVos said.
Instead of a federal mandate, states would participate on a voluntary basis. “Assuming a state wanted to offer more opportunity to their students, it would create programs with the funds for that state, from this federal tax credit pool,” DeVos said.
New Rule on Title IX
The Department of Education is also currently working on passing a new rule regarding Title IX, a federal law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal assistance, including unfair treatment by university administrations in sexual harassment and assault cases.
In 2017, DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance on dealing with sexual assault cases on school campuses. Critics argue that under Obama guidance rules, the due process rights of the individual accused were significantly undercut by the “preponderance of evidence” standard. The new rule would allow schools to choose to use a higher standard of proof, namely “clear and convincing evidence.”
The new rule would also allow school campuses to provide mediation if both sides agree to it and gives students accused of sexual assault more access to evidence.
“One sexual assault is one too many, and one falsely accused student is one too many. We need to make sure that the rules and the framework around this are fair to everyone involved and that institutions know what their responsibilities are within that and that there’s clarity there and that the rule of law is ultimately adhered to,” DeVos said.