U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos became the first member of the Trump administration to visit Denver, speaking Thursday to a noontime luncheon at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) conference held at the downtown Denver Hyatt Regency.
DeVos, the first cabinet secretary in history to require a tie-breaking vote from the vice-president in order to win Senate approval, spoke for about 15 minutes to the friendly ALEC crowd.
“I’m no stranger to state-based advocacy,” DeVos told the ALEC attendees, who are primarily state legislators from around the country. At least 15 current Colorado lawmakers, all Republicans, are attending the 44th annual conference.
DeVos is no stranger to ALEC. According to National Public Radio, DeVos and ALEC “have ties that go back decades.” The American Federation for Children, which DeVos founded, is a financial contributor to ALEC. In addition, her father-in-law, Richard DeVos, received ALEC’s “Adam Smith Free Enterprise Award” in 1993 for his efforts on market-based school reform.
The noontime luncheon also featured a panel discussion with former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, who served during the Reagan administration, and state Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, who is running for Congress for the 5th Congressional District, challenging incumbent Rep. Doug Lamborn, also of Colorado Springs.
“Our advocacy has led to some excitement on the left,” DeVos said, to laughter from the audience. She first took aim at protesters who marched from the state Capitol Wednesday in an event that protested both DeVos and ALEC. “I’m no stranger to organized protesters of the status quo, but it’s the first time I’ve been to an event where the protesters weren’t here just for me.”
DeVos then spoke about her signature issue, school choice, which some call a metaphor either for charter schools or taxpayer-funded vouchers that would go to private schools.
“Our opponents only protest those capable of implementing real change,” she said, adding that the next reforms in education won’t come from Washington, D.C. but from the states and the state legislatures. “Choice in education is good politics because it’s good policy,” and comes from parents who want the best for their children. Those who defend the status quo do not have the interests of children at heart, she claimed.
“Families are on the front line of this fight. Let’s stand with them!”
She then blasted teachers unions in general, and the American Federation of Teachers by name, stating they care more about a system created in the 1800s than about individual students. “They are totally wrong,” she added.
DeVos launched into a states’ rights approach to education, telling the audience that education is best addressed at the state, local and family levels, not by the federal government. “Equal education opportunity is common sense and the right thing to do, and it drives ‘big government’ folks nuts.”
DeVos said President Donald Trump is determined to place power in the hands of the people, and to reduce the federal footprint in education. He started off with an April executive order to review every regulation in the Department of Education that “might obstruct parents, teachers communities and students from serving their students.”
DeVos treaded carefully on the Every Student Succeeds Act, an Obama administration-approved law that replaced the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act and is intended to reduce the number of standardized tests given to students.
“We must comport with the law Congress passed,” DeVos said, but states should be encourage to be creative and “break away from the compliance mentality.”
On higher education, DeVos championed the recent decision by her department to put on hold a rule that would protect college students from predatory practices by for-profit colleges. The “borrower defense to repayment” rule, which DeVos paused last month, requires for-profit colleges to demonstrate that the education they provide helps graduates find gainful employment. DeVos said students should be protected from predatory practices, but schools should also be treated fairly, noting that public colleges and universities are not held to the same standard. The rule, put in place by the Obama administration, “is textbook overreach,” DeVos said, and “a war on every type of organization they didn’t like…if many traditional institutions were held to the same standard, many of them would fail [on the gainful employment standard] too,” she said. DeVos also noted that the rule would cost taxpayers $17 billion in unpaid student loan debt.
In a brief question-and-answer session following her remarks, DeVos went into more detail on the her views on school choice and states’ roles.
States must make the decisions regarding school choice, DeVos said. “Those [states] that pursue the most robust choices and greatest opportunities for parents and students will be the most successful,” she said.
Hill and Bennett are aligned through Conservative Leaders for Education, a new national organization Bennett founded late last year that is designed to encourage state legislatures to include conservative principles in state policy decisions on education. Hill’s signature issue – equal funding for charter schools – is backed by CL4E and ALEC. Hill’s bill won approval in the 2017 legislative session with the help of Democrats like Sen. Angela Williams of Denver and the measure’s House sponsor, Rep. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood, who is now running for the 7th Congressional District seat being vacated next year by Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Golden.
Hill said his biggest takeaway from DeVos’ speech was that the federal government is “respecting the states again.” It’s no longer “what the federal government tells you what you can and can’t do.” Hearing that, and being encouraged by DeVos on behalf of the federal government, was appreciated, he said. “Don’t tell us how to do our jobs, let our local communities make these decisions.”
He also pointed to what he called a “a unifying theme to empower students and teachers” that is broadly bipartisan and how to have an education system that provides that empowerment.
“The bar is pretty low right now. We have a lot of opportunity.”