We know that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a perennial advocate for charter schools and school choice—but what is her strategy for college and higher education, especially in the context of the booming jobs market?
And American students have been doing poorly relative to students abroad; what innovation is she championing to improve this?
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Today, we sit down with Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. We discuss her guiding philosophy of “Education Freedom,” what steps she and her department have taken to promote and implement it, and her responses to some of the critiques leveled against her. Notably, she outlines her plan to empower all Americans, not just the wealthy, to be able to choose the right schools for their children.
Jan Jekielek: Betsy DeVos. Wonderful to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Sec. DeVos: Thank you so much, Jan. Happy to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: So we’re here to try to find out what’s been going on at the education department and in particular, I really want to understand your philosophy behind what you’re doing. We’re going to cover a whole range of things. But why don’t you tell us about your core approach to what you’re trying to accomplish here.
Sec. DeVos: Sure. Well, my work for over 30 years has been advocating for students to be empowered to find their right education fit. So more education freedom is the bottom line. And that’s true for K-12 students as well as for students beyond high school. This administration [and] this president embrace and support multiple pathways to higher education, to a successful career in adult life. And we want to be very intentional about facilitating the best ways to do that and opening up the freedom and opportunity for students to do that.
Mr. Jekielek: And where did your passion for education freedom come from?
Sec. DeVos: Well, it began really when my oldest son, who’s now 37, was beginning kindergarten. I got involved as a volunteer with a small faith-based school in the heart of our city. And the more I got involved, the more I realized that for all the students and families who were there … they represented 10 or 20 other students’ families who wished that their children could be at that school. And I realized very quickly that the answer was not going to be continuing through scholarship and just hoping that this might happen, that it really all fundamentally was around policy and 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.
Mr. Jekielek: So obviously your inspiration began in K-12 education … I wanted to talk a little bit about higher education. You’ve done a number of steps forward, at least in my view, in the higher education side … during your tenure. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Sec. DeVos: Well, yes. 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.
And yet there’s a mismatch. There’s really siloing between education experiences, and we’re aiming to try to help break down those silos and break down those barriers so that students can really access the right education for them. And that involves all kinds of career and technical education opportunities. We look at higher education as like a highway, with lots of off-ramps and on-ramps—an off-ramp to go and get additional learning and additional training or skills to then get back on and into a lane of your choosing, and ability to get off again in the future. We really need to approach education today as a lifelong learning proposition. And yet higher education has … been pretty static in its approach. So we’re introducing, through regulatory efforts as well as some of these statutory initiatives that the administration’s supporting, to bring about a lot more innovation and creativity and freedom into the higher ed world as well.
Mr. Jekielek: So tell me a bit about how these education and business partnerships have been developing …
Sec. DeVos: Business and industry have a real issue, a growing issue, and that is not enough people to employ with the opportunities that are available. And so in many of the places I visited, I’m seeing where those silos that have long been constructed between business and the education world are beginning to come down because business is reaching out in a new way. And I think educators in many, many places are beginning to realize they have got to partner with business to provide the right kind of education for the opportunities that exist today, with an eye toward tomorrow. Because again, this is not a static situation. What the opportunities are today could be non-existent in five or 10 years. This is a rapidly changing world and education has got to be nimble and flexible right along with the rest of the world.
Mr. Jekielek: So president Trump has been talking a lot and implementing a lot of deregulation across the board. How’s the education department working on this? I know this is something that you’ve been vocal about as well.
Sec. DeVos: Well, this is an area we’ve been involved with. There are certain regulations from the past administration that have been really counterproductive for this multiple pathways approach. And so part of what we’re doing is deregulating there, around gainful employment and borrower defense. Those are all kind of insider terms, but really leveling the playing field so that all opportunities are available to students. Today less than 30% of higher ed students would be considered traditional higher ed students. We have to acknowledge that there are many adults doing their education while they’re holding full-time jobs, raising families. And so we have to make sure that they have the opportunities to access the kinds of education they need to continue to build their careers. And we’re really intent on doing that. We’ve also started a regulatory reform effort around accreditation, which is really the gatekeeper to much of innovation. And we believe that with the reforms that are in process, there’s going to be a lot more innovation and creativity brought into the higher ed world because of these reforms or because of the results of these reforms.
Mr. Jekielek: So it’s a little abstract for folks—reforms around accreditation. For the practical person on the street, what does that mean?
Sec. DeVos: That means that 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, and just holding this out there as a goal for the future. Really bringing in a lot more alternate and creative approaches to meeting the needs of students of all ages.
Mr. Jekielek: So there’s this big, big, booming jobs market right now as we speak. And there’s also been discussion in the administration around basically providing degrees or maybe some other form of accreditation as you described for tech, for technical studies and so forth. The standard four-year or three-year degree, bachelor’s degree, doesn’t necessarily cut it for a lot of the needs that are out there. How are you working on that?
Sec. DeVos: Right. Well, again, a lot of it comes down to removing regulatory impediments, so that new providers and new approaches can come into the higher ed world and offer solutions for students today
Mr. Jekielek: For these specific technical things. Okay. Excellent. So let’s jump back to K-12 and let’s talk about this new Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, which obviously is coming out of Congress, but it’s something that you’re championing.
Sec. DeVos: Yes. Well, the president has long talked about the need for all students to have empowerment and freedom to make the right choice … the right fit for their education in K-12. And so the proposal that we have is to establish a federal tax credit. So not a new program or new department or new bureaucracy, simply a tax credit pool that individuals or companies could contribute to [as] part of their federal tax bill for the year and states would decide to participate or not. So not a federal mandate, but 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, to ultimately offer families scholarships to choose the right fit for their child’s K-12 education.
So we’ve encouraged people to think very broadly about what these choices could look like. Maybe it’s dramatically increased dual enrollment opportunities, early college earning opportunities while they’re in high school. Maybe it’s apprenticeships in high school. Maybe it’s more career and 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. The student could choose to buy a course with the greatest teacher located in Singapore perhaps. [We’re] really thinking very broadly about introducing a lot more options and opportunities and empowering students and their families to make those choices.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s take an example. Is the scholarship awarded to the student? Is it awarded to the school? How do this work?
Sec. DeVos: The legislation would require that the students and their families are ultimately empowered with a scholarship. So … the funds would be in their control to make the choice that was right for them … going to be the right fit for them.
Mr. Jekielek: And so how is this coming along?
Sec. DeVos: The support is continuing to grow in both of the chambers. It’s been introduced in the house by Congressman Bradley Byrne from Alabama. And then in the Senate by Senator Ted Cruz. It has quite a few co-sponsors in both chambers, and we are continuing to educate members about this opportunity and build support for it. And we know that it’s going to take some time because it’s a new concept that’s different. But the reality is we have got to do something different for students in K-12 education … Today the United States is 24th in the world in reading, 25th in science, and 40th in math as compared to our peers around the world.
Mr. Jekielek: Astounding numbers when you say it that way.
Sec. DeVos: It’s just not acceptable. And for 50 years at the federal level, we have invested over $1 trillion just at the federal level alone to try … to narrow the achievement gap between those on the highest end of the spectrum and those at the lowest end. And 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.
Mr. Jekielek: And that’s a very important point, right? That a lot of, especially K-12, education decision-making is done at the state level. So you’re thinking about how can the federal government actually support what they’re doing as opposed to forcing people to do things.
Sec. DeVos: Yes, so more than 90% of the funding comes at the state and local level. Only eight-plus percent is from the federal level. Yet the federal footprint around regulation and mandates and control is much bigger than that 8%. And so our goal is to get out of the way of states as much as possible and to encourage states to implement programs that are ultimately going to empower families and students to make the choice that’s right for them.
Mr. Jekielek: So in this educational freedom realm, going back to what you started with, you’ve been such a great advocate for charter schools for a very, very long time.
Sec. DeVos: Those are great choices.
Mr. Jekielek: Right, right. And you’ve also been criticized heavily for some of this. I’d like to give you an opportunity to speak to some of these criticisms. This is just a short roundup from me looking at what’s out there. One of the things I saw a number of times is that charter schools promote almost like a re-segregation of schools, something in this realm. Another thing was that it’s turned schools into greedy for-profit enterprises as opposed to their pristine educational mandate. Another one is that actually, a criticism of charter schools I’ve seen is that just their success is simply because the students that are going there would have been successful anyway. They’ve just been moved out of the public schools.
Sec. DeVos: I’ve been involved with charter schools for as long as anybody. And first of all, charter schools are public schools. Parents and students are choosing them. Nobody’s forcing them to go to the charter school. And charter schools can’t choose their students … There’s one criticism that says they’re skimming the best of the students off the top. That’s absolutely not the case.
In fact, in my experience, it’s the students that have been struggling most in their assigned school that choose these schools with their parents and that find the right fit for them. Maybe that charter school has a different pedagogical approach or maybe it has a convening idea that’s exciting to the student. But the reality is every single family that is choosing to go to a charter is doing so because they have chosen that.
They’re not forced to go there. And they are happy and satisfied. If they’re not, they’ll go somewhere else if they have again, that freedom. And to me, the best measure is parents are choosing this. Students are choosing this. And there’s over a million kids on the waitlist for charter schools nationally.
Mr. Jekielek: Right
Sec. DeVos: There aren’t enough charter schools. We need more of them. So—
Mr. Jekielek: So … they have to turn a profit. They have to be successful financially and that’s—
Sec. DeVos: Actually, that’s a misnomer. Actually, most charter schools are organized as not-for-profit entities. So it is the status quo, it’s really the ones who have a vested interest in protecting the current system, that are making all of these allegations that are absolutely false. And they’re trying to … have people pay attention to something over here in the hopes that they won’t actually zero in on what the real issue is.
The real issue is there are kids in schools today in assigned schools that are failing miserably because they are not in the right place educationally for them. We have got to do something different to free those kids up to find the right place for them. Education freedom is not, maybe, the only answer, but it’s an important way, the direction that we have got to take giant steps in going as a country in order to have all of our citizens realize their fullest potential.
Mr. Jekielek: So you mentioned you started off in a faith-based school, right. And I know that … one of your passions also has been ending religious discrimination in schools. Something in this realm. Can you tell me a little bit about that, like how you came across this and why it’s important to you?
Sec. DeVos: Well, administration-wide, we are really intent on ensuring that all individuals are free to practice their faith as they are motivated to. And that, particularly when it comes to education, that religious entities are not discriminated against as they have been. And frankly, there are amendments in 37 states today. They’re called Blaine amendments that I believe is the last … form of bigotry in this country that has not been eliminated by court decisions. There is a potential of that happening with a couple of court cases that are working their way through the system today. But we have got to make sure that in every realm, in every way possible, we are ensuring the individual’s freedom to practice their faith and their religion.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re going to have to be wrapping up in a little bit. I just want to cover a few other areas here. Another area where you’ve been active is updating what are called the Title IX rules, basically around sexual harassment and so forth. And can you just speak to what you’re hoping to accomplish with the new rules, which are under review right now?
Sec. DeVos: Sure. This is a process and we are in the period right now where public comment was received and the team is reviewing and responding to all [comments]. It has to respond to all of those comments as part of the process. So I can’t get too far into the weeds on this particular issue.
But here’s what the motivation was. I had listening sessions with students who had been themselves victims or survivors of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. And I also had sessions with those who were falsely accused. I had sessions with administrators and those who had to adjudicate these things on campuses and the guidance that the previous administration put forward … was not a regulation. It was simply a letter that was sent to all institutions of higher education with a mandate that they follow it. [It] was one that was not just or fair to any party ultimately.
And let me just again, repeat what I’ve said many times. 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.
Mr. Jekielek: Yeah. We’re looking forward to seeing actually what comes out. I heard there were something like 200,000 comments you’re combing through right now, so that’s—
Sec. DeVos: Well it’s over 100,000. It was a significant amount. And the team is doing a great job working on this.
Mr. Jekielek: Oh, that’s great.
Sec. DeVos: So let’s just jump to another thing. I’ve been watching … the Democratic presidential primaries debates. And one of the things that really struck me is there seems to be a lot of people advocating for complete student loan forgiveness … it’s probably attractive to some people. it’s very scary to others that I’ve talked to as a concept fiscally. What are your thoughts on this?
Sec. DeVos: Well, let me just first say that we have a major issue with rapidly growing student debt amounts—over $1.5 trillion today in student loan debt. Many students are struggling to repay their loans. But the answer is not just forgiving a bunch of student debt. There’s nothing free with that. Somebody’s going to pay for it. And the notion that two-thirds of Americans who are not pursuing higher education or don’t have student loans [having to pay] for one-third that have, on its face is just not the right approach.
And additionally, think about all the students who have faithfully paid off their student debt. And then somebody who hasn’t been quite as faithful or maybe responsible getting it forgiven. I mean, the notion of this is crazy to me.
I think instead we need to be taking an approach that will first of all give students a lot more information and a lot more power over their actually taking on the debt. So we’re doing a number of things through federal student aid. First of all, we put the FAFSA, the student aid form on a smartphone. … Everybody, all the naysayers said, oh, can’t be done. Certainly can’t be done in the timeframe you said. It was done in the timeframe we said. It’s on the smartphone. You can go and fill out your student aid form there. We’re going to be adding information to that over the coming months. First of all, [we’re] very hopeful that Congress will get its job done to dramatically simplify the FAFSA form. But we’re adding information to the College Scorecard, which is also a part of that app. You will be able to go to any institution. You’ll be able to look up any institutions by a program, so programs within institutions, [and] figure out what it’s going to cost you to pursue that program and what your likely earning potential is if you complete and graduate from that program. So giving students a lot more information when they are deciding where they’re going to go, what they’re going to do. And giving them a lot more real-time information about their student debt as well. So if they’re going to draw down more of the allowable student debt, what the implications are, what that means for their payout long-term, giving them a lot more financial literacy tools to hopefully make better long-term decisions.
Again, I think 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 and will be able to meet the needs of students in a new and different way. So that combination from a department perspective, those are things that we can continue to move ahead on. But we’re very hopeful that Congress will help with some of the pieces that would require a little more statutory work on their part.
Mr. Jekielek: We’ll make sure to put up a link to this app, which is already out there.
Sec. DeVos: It is.
Mr. Jekielek: Fantastic. Well, so any final words you’d like to share with our audiences before we finish up?
Sec. DeVos: Well, thank you for this opportunity. … I think just in conclusion, 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.
Mr. Jekielek: Wonderful. Betsy DeVos. Thank you very, very much.
Sec. DeVos: Thank you Jan.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.