Former secretary of education Betsy DeVos joins Reihan Salam to discuss the case for school choice, the curriculum wars, and the need for educational transparency.

Audio Transcript

Reihan Salam: Secretary DeVos, thank you very much for joining me. Secretary DeVos is without question America's most influential and effective proponent of educational choice. As U.S. education secretary from 2017 to 2021, she worked tirelessly to reform the federal education bureaucracy and to expand access to innovative educational options for kids across America. A Michigan native, Secretary DeVos devoted countless hours to building charter schools in Detroit and other cities throughout the state. She's held positions in a number of the nation's leading education-focused organizations, including the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Alliance for School Choice, the Acton Institute, and the All Children Matter PAC.

Throughout her career, Secretary DeVos has fought to expand opportunities for children, whether they're religious, whether they're living in urban communities, rural communities, you name it. Her focus has been on unlocking the potential of all of our children. That's a goal that is central to our work at MI and one that she explores thoughtfully and movingly in her new book, Hostages No More. Secretary DeVos, you've long had a clear and consistent commitment to what you've called education freedom, a commitment you elaborate on in your new book. How do you define education freedom, and what is it about this cause that has so inspired and motivated you?

Betsy DeVos: Well, first of all, thanks for having me here, Reihan. I'm just really excited to talk about the book, Hostages No More, and the notion of education freedom. For years, we used the term school choice. Many still use that term. I like to expand it and say education freedom is really more descriptive of what we aspire for or aspire toward. That entails attaching the monies that are already spent on every child to that child, figuratively or metaphorically.

I use the metaphor of a backpack. The kids go to school every day using their backpacks for the things they need that day. But we should metaphorically attach the dollars that are being spent on that child to that backpack, for the parents, the families, to figure out where that child is going to best learn. It could be in their assigned school building. It could be in a faith-based school in their neighborhood. It could be in a customized manner, where they're buying education services from a multitude of outlets or possibilities. The last couple of years, families have become very creative with small homeschool consortiums or little micro learning pods or whatever they term them. Those kinds of opportunities would be able to flourish under an education freedom framework.

Reihan Salam: It's really fascinating. When you think about all sorts of parents, particularly middle-class parents, you have any number of supplementary education opportunities people use. Old-fashioned stuff. Piano lessons from a lady who lives down the street from you. It's interesting that that is something that is in this larger free market world. But then, when it comes to K-12 and those core offerings of the public education system, it's not a market at all. I wonder, do you feel as though that Wild West of the things that exist outside, your summer camps, your private tutoring programs, is that the world that we should be drawing lessons from?

Betsy DeVos: Well, I think we can draw some lessons from that. But I think we also have not had real opportunity to think as expansively or creatively about this as we might under a framework of funds following the student versus going to systems or buildings. I think, in a very short period of time, we would see a menu of options and opportunities that most of us haven't even begun to dream of today.

Reihan Salam: This gets to a controversy. School choice, the term that you don't use, in favor of education freedom, school choice is a term that means many different things to different people. There are a lot of people, including a lot of thoughtful people on the center left, who say, "I believe in high-performing charter schools that follow a very specific script. We have a whole lot of social-scientific data on their outcomes. I'm okay with that. But gosh darn it, if you're talking about education savings accounts, if you're talking about vouchers, if you're talking about any educational options that are not very stringently regulated, that's where I say no." How have you navigated that? Throughout your career as a philanthropist, you've also been a bridge-builder between moderates, folks on the left who are more in that former camp, and people who really say, "Hey, look, we really need to let the money follow the student." How do you bridge that divide?

Betsy DeVos: Well, I think you try to convince them and show them that, while there can be very prescriptive models for that work for some kids, they don't necessarily work for every child. We should be about accommodating and developing options and opportunities that are really going to stoke the curiosity and the wonder of every single child. We need them all to be fully formed and ready to contribute in their adult lives. Yet today, so many of them are denied that opportunity because they're stuck in a place that simply squashes that wonder and that curiosity, and therefore, they just shut down. I think, for those who have a very defined approach about what it needs to look like, we just need to remind them again that where we've ended up today, or where we are today with the traditional public government-run system, has not served so many kids very well. We don't want to recreate that same environment unwittingly by insisting that it needs to be a charter school model that follows this path.

Reihan Salam: Secretary DeVos, one of the core impulses behind this more prescriptive approach to educational choice is that we really have to focus on learning outcomes understood in a very narrow, specific way. What are you doing to my reading scores? What are you doing to my math scores? But there's another argument that, hey, look, parents might prioritize other things. They might prioritize values alignment. They might prioritize other indicators of whether or not their child is flourishing in a school. How do you think about that? There's no question that, for a lot of school choice advocates, that's the golden ticket. That's the argument they're making. Hey, look at these incredible gains we're making in performance and completion and what have you. What do you think about that idea that, well, wait a second. Maybe we shouldn't just fixate solely on those academic gains.

Betsy DeVos: Well, I would agree that we should not fixate solely on academic gains, but academic gains can be achieved through a whole wide variety of avenues. What we should be, I think, collectively encouraging is that every child has that opportunity to learn those core skills and then be able to debate those things, learn how to debate the ideas, and then to take those into adulthood in a way that's going to be value added to everything, not simply a one-size-fits-all approach. That was and is the industrial factory model that we are still operating under today here, nearly 175 years later. It is not a system that really helps kids become what they are individually meant to be. It really is one that tries to conform them. We're seeing that, for many of them, it just simply shuts them down.

Reihan Salam: If I'm a state superintendent in education and I say to you, "Secretary DeVos, I'm going to shut down every school of choice that doesn't have educational outcomes that clear this bar, even if those schools are schools where the parents love the school, the kids seem happy. Maybe they're achieving along some other dimensions." You would say, "Hold on one second. Actually, let's let the parents decide. Let's give them the information on educational outcomes, but let's not presume to know that those are bad outcomes simply because they don't surpass this or that rigid standard."

Betsy DeVos: Well, exactly. I think having transparency about curriculum . . . Well, first of all, under this current environment, we should be, I think, requiring and requesting total open transparency about what kids are being taught in school. I think that can transfer and should transfer to an education freedom environment, to allow for families to know what to expect for their child or their children. Today, parents are choosing schools other than their assigned school when they have that opportunity based on a number of factors. It could be academic outcomes and academic achievement. It could be safety. It could be around character development and formation. There's a wide variety of factors that parents or families look at, and those should be respected. Those should be honored in an education freedom system.

Reihan Salam: That's interesting because, in a way, what you're talking about is respecting real diversity, not the diversity that's invented by some bureaucrat in D.C., but the real diversity across families. I wonder, having served in the federal government, you've no doubt heard from conservatives who believe that Washington, D.C., should get out of the education business entirely, shut down the Department of Education, and go even further than that. Of course, you were engaged with a lot of really thoughtful civil servants and folks who are trying to get this right. What do you see as the appropriate role of the federal government in education? That's not just public education, but private education. What is something that the federal government can do that is actually useful and adding value and that is consistent with constitutional principle?

Betsy DeVos: Well, I happen to be in agreement that the federal department of education should not exist. There are a couple of functions that are part--

Reihan Salam: I bet you had a lot of colleagues who weren't thrilled with that stance.

Betsy DeVos: A lot of the colleagues that served with me in political roles definitely were of the same mind. There are a couple of roles that the department must fulfill under federal law, the Office for Civil Rights, but we don't need a Department of Education to make sure that those laws are followed and respected. The Individuals with Disabilities Act, for students with disabilities, that law has to be enforced and implemented. But that doesn't have to have a whole department to do it. The reality is that we would be better off without the meddling and the overreach, the regular overreach on the part of the Department of Education. The federal level only supplies eight or nine percent of the funding for education in K-12 years. Yet the overhang and the imprint of the department on the state and local level is at a much higher percentage than that.

Reihan Salam: Because they're so hyper cautious at the state and local level, they don't want to lose those federal funds. So it distorts their decisions.

Betsy DeVos: Yes. Then you have the current administration just sending out dear colleague letters that are not . . . they're not laws, but they basically bully states and districts into conforming to whatever the letter is regarding. It's not ideal for anyone. It's specifically not ideal for kids.

Reihan Salam: One obstacle for education-freedom advocates is that many parents see their local public schools as sources of social capital for their communities. They see them as part and parcel of the investment they're making in their home and their neighborhood, and also as a place where American children from many different backgrounds can forge a sense of common citizenship. If we really do embrace education freedom in this thoroughgoing way, in this way where we say, "Look, we've got to accept that there's pluralism. There's real diversity. People want different kinds of schools for their kids." How could we make sure Americans still have a common grounding in our nation's constitutional ideals?

Betsy DeVos: Well, I think that can come in a much more informal and fluid way, and probably be stronger than it is today. I think many feel that they're being forced to fit into these school systems that really don't feel a fit. They don't feel an affinity for being there. They're assigned to be there. They don't really have any agency to do anything else.

Reihan Salam: So that coercion doesn't actually lend itself to--

Betsy DeVos: Right. Exactly. I think, in a model of education freedom, you may have existing infrastructure that becomes shared by multiple providers of different approaches to learning. It actually could become a whole lot more vibrant and more community minded than what some of them experienced today.

Reihan Salam: This is really profound. One of our scholars, Eric Kaufmann, has this idea he calls multivocalism. The idea is that we all will see the flag. We won't think of it in the exact same way, but we want to have shared allegiance to that flag. The fact that someone who is Dutch Reformed might see it differently than someone who is a Muslim. Someone who's living in California sees it differently than someone in Kentucky. But actually, we want to give room for pluralism and shared ideals to work together.

Betsy DeVos: Absolutely.

Reihan Salam: That's really fascinating. In school districts across the country, parents are raising serious concerns about the ideological climate in public schools, particularly over questions of race and gender. But, of course, there's a lot more than that. Is it your belief that pluralism is the right answer, that we need different schools that embrace different approaches to the teaching of American history, or addressing issues around gender and family life, or do you believe it's appropriate for governments to impose some guardrails around the ideas that can be embedded in the curriculum?

Betsy DeVos: Well, I think it's important for pluralism to be allowed to flourish. I think, at the same time, it's appropriate for local units of government or state governments to put broad guardrails around what we think students should be able to know and learn and understand. But I think those should be kept at a minimum. I think that the stated notion or the stated goal of ensuring that students learn accurate history, the good, the bad, and the ugly, along with the founding and the grounding of our nation, in a solid civics approach that could be taught many different ways, but it has fundamentally the same parts and pieces to it, including all of the founding documents. But to be able to study those and talk about those and debate the ideas that were debated then, and help students reach their own conclusions about how awesome our country is as a result, and hopefully in doing so, form a commitment to continuing to see it live.

Reihan Salam: Yes. What do you say to people who are sympathetic to the goal of education freedom, but who say, "Wait a second. As soon as you start getting vouchers, as soon as you start getting public money into schools, whether they're religious schools, other independent schools, you are opening a huge can of worms, because whether it's coming from Washington DC or coming from the state capital, that is going to be the camel's nose under the tent to start really regulating schools that would otherwise enjoy wide autonomy." Who basically say, "Don't give me that public money because that's going to basically bring in centralization and other things that we wouldn't like." What do you say to them?

Betsy DeVos: Well, I mean, it's a valid concern, but I think the way most school choice education freedom programs are structured, the monies are actually going to the families to decide, or the families are directing them. So it's not going to the school. It's going to the family for the student. We have a commitment to every child's education. We've made that commitment. We don't talk about it in those terms. We talk about it in terms of systems and buildings, which is why I say we need to change that argument to one of being funding kids and individual students. When we get into that frame of mind, where individual students are funded with their parents directing where and how, it still is a public education for public good. It's with different providers. It may not be a government-run public school.

Reihan Salam: That absolutely makes sense. Of course, it also means that the educational providers, they can decide whether they're taking the public funds or not.

Betsy DeVos: Indeed. Yes, they wouldn't be forced to.

Reihan Salam: School choice programs create an opening for school leaders to build great new schools, to create great new educational options. But how can we build a pipeline of educators who are actually capable of capitalizing on that opportunity? You've been working on these issues for a very long time. You've seen a lot of communities where they don't have a ton of resources. They don't have a ton of educated folks with the energy and ability to really build these institutions from scratch. How have you approached that as a philanthropist, the fact that there sometimes might be that dearth of human capital to actually make these schools a reality?

Betsy DeVos: Well, for one thing, I think that will follow with true education freedom because I think that for educators and education leaders in general, an education freedom model will be awesome for them. It will give them so many more opportunities. I think about a couple of round tables I had as secretary, where I sat and talked with a number of teachers of the year in their states or their districts. They had done their year's victory lap as the educator of the year and then had gone back to their schools. Within a few months, most of them had quit teaching. I thought, "That's a tragedy. Why did you do that?" Almost to a person, it was because they got back after their year into the classroom and into their school environment again, and were basically told, "You've had your moment in the sun. Now get back in your box and get on page 33 of that particular textbook on that day." I think they just felt very stifled, and understandably.

I think that's the way many great teachers feel in a system for which there is no opportunity for significant career advancement. Many of them who are outstanding are made to feel like they can't really be outstanding by peers who may be less so. In an education freedom environment, it will give them the opportunity to shine. They could start schools. They could get together with another few great teachers and start a school on their own, or have a small one-room classroom situation for an individual teacher. In terms of preparing them for that, I think that today, education is not a profession that a lot of individuals seriously consider because it's not honored in the way it should be. In fact, the statistics I've seen suggest that 75% of new educators come from the bottom quartile of the class in which they are moving through the system. I think this would do a huge service to reprofessionalizing what should be a highly honored and respected profession.

Reihan Salam: An education freedom environment can actually activate and cultivate the most ambitious people who today don't consider becoming educators precisely because it is so rigid and step in lane, and it doesn't actually allow them to unleash their creativity.

Betsy DeVos: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think about a little school I've referenced in the last few days often. I haven't visited it, but it's in West Michigan, right close to where I live. Michigan gets cold in the winter, but this particular school, the kids are outside all day year round for their learning. The teachers are likewise. They all love it. They've chosen this particular model and environment, and it's working for them. There's great demand. There's a waiting list for kids wanting to get into that school. I think it's just a little picture of the different ways that we can be approaching-

Reihan Salam: That school didn't close during Covid, I'll bet.

Betsy DeVos: It did not. No. Exactly.

Reihan Salam: Speaking of which, this is hard to talk about. It really does seem as though Covid and the Covid school closures has had a really profound effect, particularly on the most vulnerable, disadvantaged kids, the kids who need their schools the most. The learning loss that we've seen, knowing what we know about the compounding effect of that scale of learning loss, it really seems as though this is a problem that's going to be with us for many, many years to come. It's going to exacerbate many of the disadvantages that we rightly worry about as a society. Tell me, do you see something good, maybe, hopefully, coming out of this experience for the case for education freedom, for the country as a whole? Is there some lesson we can take away from this?

Betsy DeVos: Yes. I mean, you're absolutely right. We won't know the extent of the learning loss for the most vulnerable of the kids that could least afford to be locked out of their schools for months on end. The solution to this is not for them to go back into the same environment and miraculously to catch up or surpass where they were, because that's just not going to happen, absent something entirely different. That makes the case for moving to an education freedom model as quickly and as extensively as possible, and putting that power and that direction in the hands of families, many of whom have already decided. Over 1.2 million students nationally have dropped out of the traditional system. Homeschooling numbers have skyrocketed. Those kinds of opportunities need to continue to be supported and allow for other families to access those, if that's the right thing. Extra tutoring, summer school, a whole variety of ways for students to change it up and make up for that time in ways that the system is not and cannot do.

Reihan Salam: Secretary DeVos, one obstacle to education freedom, to reforms that advance education freedom, has been the simple fact that a lot of middle class, upper middle class parents are pretty happy with their schools. They used school choice through the form of buying homes in communities that fit their needs, fit their values. Many of them really see their local teachers unions and what have you as allies in investing in these sometimes gold-plated schools, or sometimes not. Let's not exaggerate. But people who really believe in those institutions. Do you believe that Covid has changed the politics for a lot of those middle-class families?

Betsy DeVos: I do, because they had a front row seat to see how their schools handled the Covid situation. In many cases, they were very disappointed. Whether it was the schools being kept closed down for extended periods of time, whether it was mask mandates, whether it was distance learning that was episodic at best or poor in quality, whether it was the curriculums, the critical race theory, the 1619 project, any number of curricular things that they could see firsthand, or frankly, a lack of high expectations and robustness with curriculum, any combination of those, many middle and upper middle class families saw firsthand. I think they've had their eyes opened. I think, even if they've decided that that school or that system is going to be the right one for their children long term, I think they have a much greater appreciation for those families that don't have the same choices and latitude that they did, and may well support the education freedom policies, when before they didn't even pay attention to whether this was a good idea or not.

Reihan Salam: That could change the politics at the margin.

Betsy DeVos: I mean, the data recently has shown that three out of four Americans, no matter how you cut it, say that the money should go follow the child to the school or the education that's going to be the best fit for that child. So it's widely supported.

Reihan Salam: As Secretary of Education, you helped oversee and regulate America's higher education system. On the one hand, we have some of the world's greatest research universities that have contributed enormously to our economic growth, to our cultural vitality. On the other hand, as you know very well, you have tens of millions of students who are going to college without ever completing degrees. We have an awful lot of people who finish degrees that wind up not leading to remunerative careers, people who are struggling with student debt, and, rather than thinking about the brokenness of the higher education system, are looking for relief. Is American higher education broken?

Betsy DeVos: Well, I think it is woefully behind on reforming itself. I think, again, the Covid pandemic really made clear to a lot of students and families that they've been sucked into an environment that isn't serving them well, either. When you had students living in their rented apartments, attending class via Zoom five minutes from their school that refused to open, and paying full tuition for something, there's a question of value. What am I getting for what I'm paying? Also, I think there's a greater realization that there are other options and other avenues that they should look at. That was one thing that we really tried to highlight in the last administration, was the multiple pathways that are available, but that we should be supporting and/or encouraging in more meaningful ways. Whether it's certificates and short certification programs, or apprenticeships or other learning and earning opportunities, those are the kinds of things we should be really promoting in new ways. I think that this has really provided another opportunity to do that.

Reihan Salam: Just because you don't have a college education doesn't mean that you are not a bright, capable, creative, talented person . . .

Betsy DeVos: Exactly.

Reihan Salam: . . . and the idea of creating other pathways so that we can unlock the potential of a large majority of American adults. There's so much more we need to talk about. You've already been so generous with your time. I'll end on one final question. With your many philanthropic and civic commitments, you had an incredibly busy and fulfilling life before agreeing to serve as Secretary of Education. Why did you decide to do it, and how have you navigated the scrutiny and the intense criticism from opponents of education freedom?

Betsy DeVos: Well, I had been at this for 30 years before going to Washington. While a lot of the work that I did was philanthropic, a lot of it was political. I was used to the rough and tumble of the politics. I had been involved on the partisan side in Michigan for many, many years. But I realized a number of years into the work on education that the policies were not going to change by persuasion. They had to change because the politics were standing in the way. So I was happy to roll up the sleeves and get involved on the political side, knowing that it's a formidable foe in the school unions and all of their allies. I got a real up close look at that and experience of that in Washington. But I just feel so passionately about the need to fundamentally change how we do K-12 education that I was prepared to take all of the punches that came my way. I'll continue to do that now.

Reihan Salam: I know I said that was going to be the last one, but I do want to ask one quick follow up. Is it your view that the Republican Party, just ask a partisan question, is now more united around the cause of education freedom than it was before you took office?

Betsy DeVos: Absolutely. Yes. We're seeing that in primary races across the country, most recently in Iowa and Texas, where many legislators lost their seats if they had not supported education freedom policy. Many won because they promised to actually stand with families and students and give them that opportunity.

Reihan Salam: I really also appreciate your having said that transparency is such an important part of this, because choice has so much more meaning when it's in the context of real information being available. Secretary DeVos, thank you so much for everything you've done for America's children, for the cause of education freedom. And, of course, thank you for joining us today.

Betsy DeVos: Thank you so much, Reihan.

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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