74 Interview: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Freedom Scholarships, Why Parents Deserve More School Options & the ‘Noisy Status Quo-Protecting Cabal’ Fighting Her Agenda

(Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

This interview was produced in partnership with LA School Report.

See previous 74 interviews: former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan grades himself, former North Carolina governor Bev Perdue discusses the 21st century workforce, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers looks at putting the brakes on private school choice, and presidential candidate Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter.

During a recent trip to California en route to a school in San Diego, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sat down for a detailed interview about her education philosophy, policy priorities and top critics.

Among her more noteworthy insights, DeVos talked about why she believes she’s made progress toward her goals (because “we hear the opposition yelling louder than they have for a long time”), why she believes education freedom is inevitable and “is the answer to just about everything,” and why she remains wary of the “very noisy status-quo-protecting cabal that is keeping kids from having a better chance and a better future.”

“I have continued to advocate for over three decades for parents who have not been able to make choices for their kids’ education — decisions that wealthy and connected parents have been able to make for decades,” she said. “That’s one of the main reasons I’m in this job.”

She offered up strong views about the current anti-charter backlash and attempted to explain one of her recent school choice proposals, Education Freedom Scholarships, in language parents can understand. She also addressed education for immigrants and Latino families — on the same morning that President Donald Trump announced his new policy on immigration, which would prioritize merit over family relationships or the visa lottery.

Later that day, DeVos visited Design39Campus, a public school in San Diego that opened in 2014. The event met with some controversy because DeVos, citing security concerns, asked school officials not to publicize her visit beforehand. DeVos chose that school because one of the Department of Education’s former School Ambassador Fellows, Megan Power, teaches there. “Megan did a presentation for the secretary on her school while she was a fellow, and the secretary has wanted to visit ever since,” department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said in an email. “Design39 is a stellar example of rethinking education and doing things differently to meet the needs of students. The Secretary was thrilled to learn more about their innovative approach first hand.”

This conversation was edited for length and clarity:

The 74: You’ve maintained that one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work for public education, but here in Los Angeles some of the highest-achieving schools providing more choices for families — both charter and magnet schools — are stridently opposed by the teachers union. How do you advance school choice in the face of rising opposition?

DeVos: I think that there’s very noisy opposition, but I also think that there’s a lot of support for more choices and more opportunities for students. And those voices need to be heard as well. Charter schools and school choice are very popular no matter where you ask and no matter what state you’re in. They are supported by well more than half the population and a vast majority of minority populations and millennials. So it’s a matter of a very noisy status-quo-protecting cabal keeping kids from having a better chance and a better future.

So do you think there’s more support for choice than we’re actually seeing or hearing?

Absolutely. Like I said, it’s a noisy, small group of people who are trying to protect their turf at the expense of kids.

Does the media play a role in that?

Well, the media hasn’t been helpful, because they’re not always honest about what we’re talking about here.

Give us an example.

Well, number one, they don’t really understand what education choice, school choice and education freedom are. And they don’t try to understand it and make it clear. When everybody uses school choice synonymously with a voucher, that’s just erroneous. A voucher is one mechanism, one vehicle. But what we’re really talking about is education freedom, and a variety of mechanisms and vehicles that allow for education freedom. The notion of education freedom is giving every kid the opportunity to make the kind of choices that the wealthy and the connected have been able to make for decades.

We recently broke a story here about three local NAACP chapters that are pushing for a reversal of the national organization’s call for a charter moratorium. And though it ultimately was withdrawn, a bill calling for a charter moratorium here in California was introduced in the state legislature. What do you say to those who want a moratorium?

I think they’re totally mistaken, and they’re not really acting or speaking in the best interests of those they profess to represent.

In your talks with people in black communities all over the country, do you find that their views reflect the NAACP’s position, or do you think the organization’s views are not widespread?

There’s a disconnect between the leadership of the national organization and some of the local chapters … and parents and students. I think there is a clear disconnect.

What makes you say that?

All you have to do is talk to one or more students who have had the benefit of education freedom and whose life trajectory has changed completely as a result. This is what more kids need, not fewer. And more opportunities need to be offered to kids who are stuck in schools that are not working for them.

There are 73,000 children who are on a waitlist for charter schools in the state, and there are major bills before the state legislature that would restrict charters. What do you say to parents who are hoping for a high-quality school but may have fewer options if these bills become law?

I’d encourage them to speak out and contact their legislators. Make their voices heard. There should be more charter schools, not fewer. That’s true across the country. It’s only politics that is restricting and or even bringing this forward as an issue today. The defenders of what is are trying to squash what could be good for kids.

You’ve said that really great teachers should be better compensated. LAUSD tried to make that happen but failed in a state whose leadership is backed by teachers unions that oppose higher pay for performance. How could higher teacher pay come about? And what do you say to those who ardently disagree with paying great teachers more?

First of all, teaching needs to be more highly honored and taken more seriously as a profession. I think, in many ways, it’s been deprofessionalized over the years, primarily because of the politics around it. I’ve talked with dozens, hundreds, of teachers who say they don’t have the kind of autonomy in their classrooms that they really desire, who feel like they’re stuck in a box in the same way that many kids are stuck in an assigned school that’s not working for them.

It just reinforces this notion that education at large needs to be freed up, and that individual teachers who are really great at what they do need to have career opportunities — perhaps by teaching other, less experienced, teachers. We have a couple of proposals that we’ve advanced as part of the budget this year to test out some of these ideas, such as a mentorship and residency proposal. I’ve heard repeatedly from great teachers that if they really want to advance their careers they ultimately have to go into administration.

The other area that I have heard about repeatedly is professional development, and for so many it’s a check-the-box exercise and not value-added for what they really need. So we have a teacher voucher program proposal that would give them control of their own professional development. They can take a sum of money and decide how they want to continue to grow themselves.

You said at the recent Education Writers Association conference that you don’t want to be used as clickbait, but that can happen when you remain largely unknowable. Other than school choice, what do you consider to be the core principles that guide your leadership?

I believe that every single child is uniquely created and has great potential, and I am committed to doing everything I can to support their ability to become everything that they can become. That is a very broad and general principle that really informs everything else that I do around education. That leads me to supporting and advocating for education freedom, because I think ultimately freedom is the answer to just about everything. Freedom in the ability to decide what one’s future is going to be. And as a teacher, freedom to decide what kind of school or environment you want to be in that will ultimately help change the outcomes for millions and millions and millions of kids.

The 74 reporter Esmeralda Fabián Romero interviews U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Laura Greanias)

Do you think you’ve made progress toward those goals?

We’re heading into a whole lot more discussion about that, and we hear the opposition yelling louder than they have for a long time. So yes, I do believe we’re making progress, and I believe that education freedom is inevitable.

What makes you say that? You’ve said that the freedom scholarships are inevitable, but also that just education freedom more broadly is inevitable. Say more.

I don’t think that we can as a country survive long-term if we don’t do something drastically different. We’ve done the same thing for well over a century, and in the last 50 years have spent over a trillion dollars at the federal level to try to change things for those at the bottom rung. Those outcomes and those results haven’t changed. Those gaps have not narrowed at all. We’ve got to have everybody pulling in the same direction at their fullest potential in the long term. When we’re 24th, 25th and 40th in the world compared with other countries in certain academic areas, it’s not acceptable. America’s got to continue to lead the world, and we can only do that when everybody has the chance to contribute in a meaningful way.

Another very important topic in California is English learners. About a quarter of all students in California are English learners. They’ve shown very little progress in the last three years, gaining less than one percentage point on academic outcomes. Have you seen any states or school districts in the nation that are doing a good job serving this population?

Good question. I don’t have a specific example of a state or a district that’s doing particularly well. Within the department, it’s been very siloed in the past — with elementary and secondary education [separate from] English language learners. There’s so much that both of those departments can work together on to support one another. And in fact, José Viana [assistant deputy secretary in charge of the office of English language acquisition] just hosted a symposium last week with all kinds of representatives of the English language learner community, and they reportedly had a fabulous time talking about how they can better serve English language learning populations.

I had the opportunity to meet a couple of students, one of whom was in second grade, and he has a goal of becoming fluent in six languages. He was very proud to announce that. And another young lady who was in fourth grade and has command of three languages so far. So they were talking much more about bilingualism and the benefit that holds for young people in their future careers. A focus around the benefit of having a command of two languages has to be part of that discussion here in California.

They have students who are able to speak both Spanish and English well, who have a real leg up on a lot of students like myself. I’m not a student, but I studied German and I can only use it very minimally when I happen to engage in Germany. It’s clearly a very significant issue for California, Texas and a lot of states that have a lot of English language learners. We are very committed to supporting educators and having high expectations for all students.

In our reporting, we try to speak to a parent audience, particularly Latino and immigrant parents who make up a large part of L.A. schools. Many of these parents came to this country so that their children could be educated. What specifically are you or your policies doing to help them?

To help all immigrant populations?

Particularly urban, low-income, diverse populations and immigrants.

I have continued to advocate for over three decades for parents who have not been able to make choices for their kids’ education — decisions that wealthy and connected parents have been able to make for decades. That’s one of the main reasons I’m in this job. That’s the bottom line of what I’ve been continuing to do and what we as a team are trying to advance through the Education Freedom Scholarships proposal.

Education Freedom Scholarships would expand private school choice with a dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit for donations to state-identified scholarship granting organizations. That’s a mouthful. How do you explain that to parents?

The proposal will help more kids get a much better education. That’s the bottom line. The vehicle to do that is a federal tax credit that individuals and companies could contribute to voluntarily, so before their tax dollars become federal tax dollars, they contribute to scholarship-granting organizations as defined by states that decide to participate. No state is forced to participate, but if they do, they define one or more 501(c)(3) organizations that individuals can contribute to.

The states then formulate a program or programs to empower parents and students to make a choice in their K-12 education. Now, we have encouraged people to think very broadly about what that can look like. California, for example, might decide that enhancing career or technical education opportunities and apprenticeship opportunities is a good direction. Or perhaps providing more preschool options.

Is early education allowed through this?

It is where states consider pre-K as part of the K-12 continuum.

Where does the money come from? Say you want to start a new career and technical education program. How would the money fund that?

It would come from contributions to 501(c)(3) organizations that in turn grant scholarships to students and their families. Here’s a simple explanation: I owe a dollar to the federal government in my taxes. I decide I want to take 10 cents of that dollar and contribute it to a 501(c)(3) scholarship organization. I still pay my 90 cents to the federal government, but 10 cents is much more efficiently and effectively directed right to the kids who can most benefit.

For parents who’ve heard about vouchers, how do you explain the difference?

A voucher is simply a mechanism to empower parents and students to make a choice. There are lots of different mechanisms. A tax credit scholarship that is then scholarshipped out of a fund is essentially a voucher in the form of a tax credit. But it’s not technically called a voucher. A voucher is a direct payment to parents to choose a different school. A tax credit scholarship goes through a scholarship-granting organization. And then you also have education savings accounts, which are annual accounts that you can use to buy different education services.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Laura Greanias)

For your own child?

For your own child, yes. So there are all these different mechanisms, but the bottom line from all of them is that more students have the opportunity to choose the right education setting for them.

Why is this mechanism your preferred one?

It doesn’t create a new program at the federal level. It doesn’t create a new bureaucracy at the federal level. It really supercharges states’ efforts to provide more choices for families. And it doesn’t force states to participate if they decide not to. So it’s a win-win for everybody, but it’s particularly a win for kids who are going to benefit.

California’s leadership doesn’t always see eye to eye with the Trump administration. To benefit from these scholarships, California would have to opt in. Why would Governor Newsom do that?

First of all, it wouldn’t have to be the governor. It could be anyone in elected office in the state. It could be the state treasurer. It could be the legislature. We’ve left the definition of who could actually decide to name scholarship-granting organizations open. If that becomes a debate in California, that would probably be a good thing. There are lots of parents here who would probably say, “We want this.” Frankly, I don’t know why California would want to give up the opportunity for funds to add value to kids and their futures.

How much roughly would that be for California?

I think it’s just shy of $600 million annually, if people actually contribute to the scholarship-granting organizations.

If California doesn’t set up its own program, how successful would it be if 1 in 8 kids in the country live in a place where this wouldn’t be available?

It would be tragic for California not to participate, because it’s children who would lose out.

For the freedom scholarships, how far along are you in the legislative process? Do you have any Democratic support?

The bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate. Bradley Byrne of Alabama in the House, Ted Cruz in the Senate, and co-sponsors are being added regularly. We have had some conversations with some Democratic legislators, and I acknowledge that we have to have Democratic support to get it to pass. I am very optimistic that there are a number of them who represent constituencies that are either currently benefiting from state programs or will benefit with the adoption of this legislation, and will know and understand how important it is to support the kids and do the right thing on their behalf. [Editor’s note: Both Cruz and Byrne, the original sponsors of the bill, are Republicans. As of late June, the Senate bill had 9 co-sponsors, and the House version had 58 — in both cases, all Republican.]

What is the timeline?

I wouldn’t put a timeline on it right now. I think it’s a process, not an event. It requires a lot of education because there’s so much misperception and misconception around the phrases “school choice” or “education freedom.”

When we speak with parents, they seem to have a kind of a tape playing over and over in their minds about the privatization of education under your leadership. How would you explain to those parents what you think they’re getting wrong, and why you think your leadership is not leaning toward privatization of education?

Privatization – I don’t even know what that means. What I want to tell those parents is, I’m for your child. I’m for your children. And I want the best education opportunities for them as defined by you, the parent. I want you as a parent to be able to make a variety of choices. If your son learns best with lots of activity and time to run around, if your son learns differently than your daughter, or one son learns differently than another son, why should they all be in the same place, learning the same way, and be forced to conform to what the system dictates?

You should be able to pick a school that works for each of your kids and sees them flourish that way. Now, somebody will say, “Well, how am I going to get three kids to three different schools?” That’s a good question. You’ll figure it out, if it’s important enough to you and you know that this is the right thing for your child. You’re going to figure out how to do it. I see this time and again with parents who will go to great lengths to get their kids in the right place. But right now, too many parents don’t even have an opportunity to make that decision. And if you decide that your assigned school is the right fit, nobody’s suggesting that you do anything differently. But you ought to have the freedom to make that decision and make another choice if that’s the right thing for your child.

How would you assess your working relationship with the new House Democratic majority?

All relationships have to be personal and one on one, so there are some individuals on the Democrat side of the House that I would feel a fairly good rapport with, but very honestly, Congress is not actually there a lot. There’s so much misperception of how much interaction you have with individual members and how these relationships might or might not form up. To the extent that we have opportunities to interact, I always enjoy meeting new members whom I haven’t been able to before. I always feel that it’s best to have conversations one on one, and preferably without a whole lot of staff because that allows for a better relationship to develop. I welcome those opportunities.

What’s your response to the House Democrats wanting to cut the federal charter school program?

It’s ill-advised. I mean, we have over a million kids nationwide on charter school wait lists, so again, we need more charter schools, not fewer.

Go Deeper: See previous 74 interviews: former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan grades himself, former North Carolina governor Bev Perdue discusses the 21st century workforce, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers looks at putting the brakes on private school choice, and presidential candidate Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms. Get the latest interviews, news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox; sign up for The 74 Newsletter.

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