U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos kicked off her first appearance at the Education Writers Association with a confession: She didn’t really want to be there. And that wasn’t necessarily because she’s afraid of tough questions.
She’s, well, shy, she told a packed ballroom here at the organization’s annual national seminar.
“I never imagined I’d be a focus of your coverage,” DeVos said. “I don’t enjoy the publicity that comes with my position. I don’t love being up on stage or on any kind of platform. I’m an introvert.”
Then she offered a subtle dig—or some tough love, depending on your perspective—to the media: Don’t make me the story.
“As much as many in the media use my name as clickbait or try to make it all about me, it’s not. Education is not about Betsy DeVos nor any other individual,” she said. “It’s about students. It’s about acknowledging the inate value of every single one of them.
Also: The media isn’t doing a great job of describing school choice, DeVos’ signature issue, the secretary said.
“Let’s get the terminology right about schools and school choice. Charter schools are public schools. Vouchers are not tax-credits, nor are they tax-deductions, nor education savings accounts, nor 529 accounts,” she said. So, she added, the phrase “‘vouchers for charter schools,’ for instance, is nonsensical.”
To a luncheon crowd of hundreds of education journalists, DeVos talked up her new signature initiative: Education Freedom Scholarships, which would offer up to $5 billion in federal tax credits to individuals and corporations who donate to state-level organizations. Those organizations could then give money to help kids cover the cost of private school, public school choice, transportation, dual enrolment courses at a community college, after-school programs and more.
She was dismissive of what she portrayed as the status quo approach to improving the nation’s education system.
“We’ve been doing essentially the same thing, spending more money around it, and expecting different results,” she said, in response to questions from Erica Green, the New York Times education reporter, who moderated a question and answer session.She said the “Education Freedom Scholarships proposal should be appealing to everyone.”
DeVos thinks more competition in the education system will ultimately help improve public schools. “More freedom and more freedom in education will ultimately mean better experiences and more excellence at every school,” DeVos said. (The research is mixed on that point.) She said she’s meeting with Democrats and Republicans to try and get her proposal over the legislative finish line.
What does DeVos think of the teachers’ strikes that have bubbled up in both red states (like Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia) and big blue cities (like Denver and Los Angeles)? DeVos is all for more teacher pay, but she’s not so jazzed that students miss out on learning time during a strike.
“It’s important that adults have adult disagreements on adult time and not ultimately hurt kids in the process,” she said. “And I think too often they’re doing so by walking out of classrooms and having their arguments in the way that they are.”
But she added, “really great teachers should be compensated more, but the system is really forcing them into a box that doesn’t recognize them as the individuals they are. ... Great teachers should be making at least half of what Randi Weingarten does at a half million dollars a year,” she added, referring to the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.6 million-member union.
Later, Weingarten fired back in a statement: “I’d be delighted if Betsy wants to get all teachers close to $200,000--they deserve that--and so much more,” she said. “We could do this if Betsy worked with us to revoke tax cuts for rich people. She won’t even have to give up the summer homes and the yachts.”
Green wondered whether DeVos and her team thought there was a connection between the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the Obama administration’s discipline guidance, which was aimed at making sure students of color aren’t subjected to harsher punishments than their peers. Trump’s school safety commission, established in the wake of the shooting, ultimately recommended scrapping the guidance
“The [repeal of the] school discipline guidance was actually something that we had been considering and discussing for months before the school safety commission was stood up,” DeVos said. “We felt it was an overreach by the previous administration.” She said she heard from both supporters and detractors of the guidance. “Those who were opposed said it was viewed very much as a mandate that really was hamstringing them in many ways and was making their schools less safe.”
There was big criticism from the civil rights community when DeVos struck down the guidance. Read more about that here.
Green noted that, in her past role as the head of the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization, DeVos argued on behalf of minority students and LGBT kids. But at the department, she’s struck down guidance that would have protected those groups. Civil rights groups are very concerned. What is the department looking to do when it takes those measures?
“I am and we are at the department very committed to making sure that students’ civil rights are protected,” she said. “I’m also committed to following the law. I’m a first-born child and I’m a rule follower. ... I’m not going to overstep and make law when there isn’t law. I think the things that you are referencing were overreaches on the part of the previous administration.”
Will DeVos return for another four years if President Donald Trump wins a second term? She didn’t say either way, but wasn’t exactly clamoring for a second term.
“I’m not sure my husband would be okay with that,” she said.
To read the entire transcript, click here.
Can’t get enough of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? Check out some of our best coverage:
- Here’s Our Q&A with Secretary DeVos
- Read an Education Week Commentary by DeVos on Special Education Students
- Betsy DeVos’ Use of the Bully Pulpit Brings Opportunities, and Challenges
- Among Educators, Donald Trump Is More Popular Than Betsy DeVos
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