Betsy DeVos started fighting for education freedom long before arriving in Washington to serve as Cabinet secretary in President Donald Trump’s administration. But what’s happened in the past couple of years—prompted by COVID lockdowns and a parents’ rights movement—has accelerated the opportunity to give students more options and better schools.
“Everything we did was focused on doing what’s right for students. And that started with talking about empowering families and students to make the choice for their right fit for education,” DeVos told The Daily Signal about her time as secretary of education. “And now with the reality of COVID, we’re at a point where I think policies are going to change.”
Many of those changes are already taking place in states across America. DeVos, who is the author of a new book, “Hostages No More: The Fight for Education Freedom and the Future of the American Child,” believes it’s time to take even bolder steps. Just last week, she embraced the idea of eliminating the U.S. Department of Education—the federal agency she once led.
Listen to our interview on The Daily Signal or read a lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: Secretary DeVos, it’s great to have you back on The Daily Signal.
Betsy DeVos: It’s great to be back, Rob. Thanks.
Bluey: Let’s start with the book. Obviously, this is a time when so many Americans, particularly parents, have education front and center on their mind, given what’s happening in our country. Why did you decide to write it?
DeVos: I probably wouldn’t have written a book, but because of what happened the last two years where parents saw firsthand what was happening or, in many cases, wasn’t happening in their children’s schools and education, it’s a moment that we can’t let go by.
The failings of the 175-year-old system have been laid bare. And in a way that I’ve actually noticed for many years, but now lots more people are seeing it and we need to harness that energy and that concern, and change that into policies that empower families.
Bluey: Let’s go back to the period in 2020 when a lot of schools made the decision to shut down, go to virtual learning. And parents were then in many cases seeing for the first time what was being taught—
DeVos: That’s right.
Bluey: … to their kids. And what were some of the things you were hearing while serving in office that maybe surprised you, that alarmed you, that told you that we were going to face a moment in this country where parents said, “I want to be more in control”?
DeVos: First of all, the shutdowns and lockdowns that they continued for months and months and months. The kids who could least afford to be out of the classroom and not learning in person face-to-face were the ones that were hurt the most. And parents who could make a decision to do something different did.
But this moment has really coalesced in such a way that today we have the kind of energy and support around policies that will give parents and students education freedom to be able to find the right niche. We’ve seen lots of creativity through the last two years.
We’ve also seen schools that were intent on serving their students. Many of the charter schools and the private schools went right back to teaching in person and the students did great. But it’s all the kids that were locked out and kept out for so long that have been harmed—and in many ways other than just academically.
Bluey: What is your advice for the parents who might be listening? What can they do? What steps practically can they do in their own lives? I’m asking this as a parent myself, two kids in public school here in Virginia. And I’d like to know, just from your perspective, what steps should they take?
DeVos: If they themselves want to have education freedom and have the money, the resources that are already designated for their children, to follow their child and to be able to take them and use them in a way that’s going to most enhance that child’s future, they need to be contacting state legislators, contacting their governors, and putting pressure on them to say, “We need to have this power now. And we have seen the failings.”
So it’s time to turn the system, 175-year-old system that’s no longer working for too many kids, to give us the chance to actually help foster and create new opportunities, new schools, new kinds of approaches. And they can best do that by talking to their legislators, talking to their governors. And also, importantly, at the most local level while their kids are in school, to show up and talk at their school board meetings and make sure that there’s transparency there.
Bluey: Or as we’ve seen in some cases, they’ve taken the step of actually running for their school board—
Bluey: … and maybe never intended to be in a position to do that. What does that speak about this movement among parents?
DeVos: I think it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting to see that many parents who have realized, again, what many of us have long known to be the case, they are taking action and that’s good.
I mean, it was a decisive issue in the governor’s race in Virginia. And I think that the status quo and the opposition to really freeing up and allowing families to make these decisions have doubled down on it. And I think to their detriment.
So now is really the time for everyone who has kids and wants something different for them or grandparents or neighbors and friends, now’s the time to put the pressure on those who make the policies. States are where most of the education policy is made, but the federal level can also either be helpful or a hindrance. And in this case, the Biden administration on every front is a hindrance.
Bluey: Yes. And we’re grateful for your leadership and what you did while serving as secretary to hopefully, in many cases, help states and give them an opportunity to take advantage of things that they could do to create more choice for students.
You used a term that I want to unpack for our listeners, and that was that the money should follow the student. What do you mean by that? And what does an ideal situation look like? Or maybe there’s a model out there that you’ve found that works particularly well.
DeVos: I like to call it education freedom. Many people call it school choice, but I think that’s rather limiting. Because it speaks to buildings and things that we currently know, systems we currently know. Education freedom is a much broader concept.
Today we spend on average $15,000 per kid for the K-12 years per year. Some places it’s a lot more, some places it’s less. But let’s just say on average there’s $15,000 there annually for a child’s education.
Instead of sending that money to a building or a system, I like to talk about, metaphorically, attaching it to that child’s backpack. The thing they go to school with every day, with all the stuff they need for learning that day.
Attach that money to that child’s backpack and let the families decide: “Do I want my child to go to the school they’re assigned to? Or maybe there’s a school down the street that I saw operating in the last two years in a way that I didn’t really realize or understand could be. And maybe the school over there around the corner has values more aligned with my family’s values. Maybe I don’t like what my child has been subjected to in the schools in terms of curriculum.”
There’s any reason that a family would choose to do something different and in some cases, customize that child’s education. We can unleash the creativity of this nation if we empower every family in this country to do what those who have economic means and wealth already do, and make a choice for their child’s education.
Bluey: It’s so true. And it’s just common sense. And I think that’s why you’ve seen people who aren’t just conservatives or Republicans come out and support somebody like a [Virginia Gov.] Glenn Youngkin because he tapped into that. And I think that they recognized that this battle over the child—and [former Virginia Gov.] Terry McAuliffe basically said directly that he didn’t think parents had a role there. I think a lot of parents, regardless of whether their political affiliation was, Republican or Democrat, said, “No, I want to be in control. I want that freedom that you spoke of.”
Bluey: Let me ask you, you brought up the Biden administration. I’d like to get your perspective on some of the things that they are doing at the federal level that we should be concerned about. What are the biggest problems that you see them potentially creating when it comes to limiting that freedom or other things that might be on the horizon?
DeVos: I’m most concerned about what they are likely to do on Title IX.
As you know, we did an extensive rulemaking process that put a very fair, predictable, balanced framework in place for how education institutions need to handle matters of sexual misconduct and those related things on campuses.
The Biden administration has talked about not only rolling those back and taking away the due process protections that we insured would be the case and would be there, but they’re also talking about redefining biological sex to include pretty much anything you want to define it to be.
And this has really devastating implications … especially when you think about women’s sports. You can’t say you are an advocate of Title IX and equal opportunity for education and athletics as an addendum and then at the same time say you are OK with biological males competing on women’s sports teams. Those are just incompatible. And so this is an area I’m very, very concerned about.
They’ve also overreached in every single other area and have taken a far-left disposition on just about anything that they possibly can, including the first competitive grant program out of the box. They tried to award more points and therefore more money to schools that would adopt and take on the 1619 Project curriculum. Well, we know that to be totally debunked by many historians. And yet they were going to elevate that and direct money into those schools that would take that on.
They’re trying to kill the growth of charter schools.
I mean, by any measure, this Department of Education under the Biden administration has taken a far-left turn. And conservatives had best pay attention and raise their voices around these things.
Bluey: Yeah. Certainly, we need a lot more oversight and we need a lot more pushback on both of those fronts.
Going on Title IX first, I think one of the things that has surprised me is the number of feminist groups that have spoken out or even aligned themselves with conservatives who are concerned about the implications for women’s sports in particular or young girls. You spoke about the implications of doing this. What does it mean practically for a student if the Biden administration were to go down this path? And why should parents be concerned and maybe speaking up about it now?
DeVos: We’ve seen in more than one case the swimmer in Pennsylvania, Lia Thomas, that has sort of taken over the women’s swimming team there.
And I was a swimmer, I was a competitive swimmer growing up and I was a good swimmer, not a great swimmer. But the notion that I would have to potentially compete against biological males—many young women won’t even go out for sports if that is what the future looks like.
And I think about all these young women who today are working hard and training and giving up lots of things in order to pursue a particular sport. But the notion that, again, any biological male could come and say, “I’m going to compete now on a woman’s team,” it is unfair fundamentally, and it’s just flat-out wrong.
Bluey: You talked about the Biden administration incentivizing schools to adopt things like the 1619 Project or some of the other elements of critical race theory. What I’ve heard is so often teachers are taught when they go to college in their preparation for becoming teachers to incorporate some of these ideas into their instruction. What are some of the ways that we can effectively push back on critical race theory to make sure that’s not the case in the future?
DeVos: There’s been a lot of effort to ban critical race theory. But we know that where there’s a will, there’s a way to have it reappear under some other name or banner.
I think the approach we should be taking is to demand radical transparency around curriculum and around everything that goes on in a school building. Parents have this right, taxpayers have this right. We need to know what’s going on, what is being taught, and how the money that’s allocated is being spent.
And if there’s radical transparency, there will also be accountability eventually. But I think we get to full accountability when, ultimately, every individual who’s a consumer is actually a consumer that can make a choice. Not just get assigned to a building based on geography.
Bluey: I have a question related to higher ed. We’ve heard in recent weeks that the Biden administration wants to pursue a student loan forgiveness approach, which would, I think in many cases, infuriate large segments of the American population who either didn’t attend college or don’t want to be on the hook for someone else’s education. What is your approach to the issue? What is your advice to conservatives when it comes to the issue of student loans?
DeVos: First of all, I’m pleased that it’s actually come into a more common discussion. Because I started talking about this while in office and there were even some on our side of the aisle who said, “Maybe this isn’t such a bad idea.” But it’s a fundamentally wrong and bad idea because it’s unfair.
Two out of three Americans haven’t gone to college or taken out student loans. We have lots of young Americans who have faithfully paid off their student loans. We have other families who save for their children to be able to help them pay to go to college.
Just writing off and forgiving a whole bunch of student debt is the wrong approach. What happens if it’s 10 or 50—whatever it is. So you do it once, then what? You haven’t solved anything. You’re going to continue to recreate the same problem.
And so the questions need to be rolled back further and we need to be looking more closely at, what is the value that a student is receiving for the education that they’re paying for? And what accountability does an institution have in taking in a student and taking their student loan funds? In fact, the federal government sends the money to the institution, not to the student. So the institution gets it first.
There is no governor on how schools continue to elevate their pricing and we’ve seen the growth of the tuition rate is multiple times the rate of inflation over the last 20, 30 years. And that’s just wrong. I mean, the incentives are wrong, the inputs are wrong.
And so there’s every opportunity to go back and say, “We need to take a look at this again.” The federal government shouldn’t be the only entity in the student loan business, either. This all really took off and really ramped up after 2010 when student loans were federalized.
Bluey: Thank you for being such an articulate voice on this issue. You touched on something there, and that is the growth of tuition. How would, as the Biden administration puts it, forgiveness or cancellation of debt incentivize colleges and universities to increase tuition at an even higher rate in the future?
DeVos: Exactly. I mean, it doesn’t solve any problem, … it doesn’t solve any systemic or fundamental problem. The way the system is set up today is it is wrong and it is flawed. And we’re continuing to dig deeper and deeper into the problem with $1.7 trillion in student loan debt out there.
And the notion that this entity is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education is also a bad move, a bad idea. Everything about it is really set up for long-term problem and ultimately failure.
We need policymakers to take a step back and look afresh at what really needs to be done to encourage students to pursue the pathways that are right for them. And maybe it’s not a four-year college or university. There are many other viable options. But we don’t hear about those because it is so geared toward this four-year experience.
But again, I think the COVID experience has awakened more students to question what the value is of taking on student debt and what they’re actually pursuing. And I hope that will continue to raise more questions in their minds and policymakers to take a more serious look at how to actually get the incentives and the structure right.
Bluey: Yeah, I think you’re right on that. I just did a fascinating interview with a couple of people affiliated with the Pioneer Institute in Massachusetts who have a new book out on vocational-technical education and why that should be an alternative for a lot of students, rather than directing everybody to a four-year college degree. So multitude of options, certainly, for kids.
DeVos: Exactly. Millions of jobs that are going unfilled today that don’t require a four-year college degree, but some kind of training or education beyond 12th grade. So, let’s make sure students know about these, let’s support their ability to pursue those, and let’s think differently about what higher education really should be and look like.
Bluey: A couple of final questions for you. Reflecting back on your time serving as secretary of education, what is the greatest accomplishment? What is the one thing that stands out in your mind that you’re pleased to have done in that role?
DeVos: Everything we did was focused on doing what’s right for students. And that started with talking about empowering families and students to make the choice for their right fit for education. I think we elevated that conversation in really important ways. And now with the reality of COVID, we’re at a point where I think policies are going to change and follow to support that notion.
I’m also very proud of the policymaking, the rule-making we did on the higher ed level around Title IX, around opening up more options and more pathways for students to pursue. And again, keeping the focus on doing the right thing for students, not systems and not buildings.
Bluey: That’s right. Well, I think two points on that. No. 1, the groundwork that you were able to lay I think did have an impact. So, when the situation with COVID did come around, parents hopefully felt that they had an advocate in the Trump administration under your watch.
And secondly, I know it doesn’t always generate the headlines, but the rule-making process isn’t arduous, complicated and it takes a long time. So it’s certainly something that I think we as conservatives need to probably do a better job of at the administrative level in the federal government to make sure that we’re advancing principles that we believe in.
DeVos: Yes. And I mean, one of the things that we tried to do in every aspect to the fullest extent possible was to shrink the role of the department and to actually acknowledge that education is a state issue and respect federalism. That’s a very different kind of posture and footprint than my predecessors took and my successors have taken. And so all that to say, elections matter because ideas and policy matters.
Bluey: Last question for you. I imagine there were things that you didn’t get done. I know that we’re having a conversation right now among House Republicans and others in Washington who are putting together an agenda for what looks like in 2023, maybe what the next administration should pursue when it comes to education reform. Do you have a big-ticket item or a couple of things that you would recommend to others who are working on these issues?
DeVos: Yes, absolutely. The tax credit scholarship program that we advocated during the time in office, which would establish a mechanism, a vehicle through the Department of Treasury … to come alongside what states are doing to give families education freedom and provide some rocket fuel to that, that is a very real and viable step that this next Congress can take, and really support families and kids and their futures.
Bluey: Great. Well, Secretary DeVos, thank you so much for spending time with us. We’ll make sure to include a link to your book “Hostages No More” in the show notes, in the transcript of this interview. Thank you so much for writing it and sharing your story with us.
DeVos: Thanks so much, Rob. Appreciate it.
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