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Betsy DeVos: The K-12 System Has 'Stolen Decision-Making Power From Families'

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has a lot of questions about the American K-12 education that she's been charged with leading, and she unspooled a series of them in a speech in Huntsville, Ala., Wednesday, the first day of four-state "Rethink School" tour.

"Why does 'the system' pretend that every teacher and every student is the same?"

"Why aren't parents allowed to decide the education that's right for their children?"

"Why aren't all students allowed to pursue learning in ways that work for them?"

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

DeVos argued in her speech at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center that "next to nothing" has changed in education, since 1983's landmark "A Nation at Risk" report, which warned that the country was falling dangerously behind foreign competitors. Some students are "bored" in class and others are unable to study a subject they're interested in because their school doesn't offer it, she said. 

"We must do better!" DeVos said, according to prepared remarks. "'Better' means we rethink school. 'We' means everyone. Every state, every community, every family. Everyone question everything to ensure nothing limits a student from being prepared for what comes next."

Her tour itinerary also includes stops in Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. All four states backed DeVos' boss, President Donald Trump, in 2016. DeVos took a similar early-fall sweep through the Midwest last year.

The kinds of questions the secretary is asking aren't likely to go over well with educators, said Mark Hlavacik, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of North Texas in Denton and the author of Assigning Blame: The Rhetoric of Education Reform.

"If I were a teacher reading them I think I would mostly feel insulted by them," said Hlavacik, who reviewed the list of questions guiding the tour released by the department ahead of the speech. "It's hard to read them as positive. There's sort of this implication that 'You all aren't thinking aren't hard enough about what you do.' It's not a very friendly appeal.'"

In her Wednesday speech, though, DeVos seemed to be trying to appeal to educators, who she said often "express frustration that they aren't trusted with more autonomy; that they aren't honored with more flexibility; and that they aren't respected as professionals who know their students and what each of them need to learn and achieve."

Teachers, she said, need to be given more than a binary choice of staying in the classroom or becoming an administrator.

DeVos even called for the best teachers to be paid up to $250,000 a year, since "union bosses" make upwards of half a million dollars.

The department, though, isn't exactly putting money where DeVos' rhetoric is. In both of its budget requests, the Trump administration sought to zero out the $2 billion Title II program, which helps cover the cost of teachers' salaries in many districts. Congress rejected the proposal.

DeVos also used the speech to make a pitch for her favorite policy: school choice.

"The family is—and always will be—the 'first school.' Parents, by their very nature, should decide what, when, where and how their children learn," DeVos said "But, over time, 'the system' has stolen decision-making power from families. Parents have the greatest stake in their child's education. Accordingly, they should have the greatest power to make sure their child gets the right education for him or her."

The Trump administration's efforts to expand choice, including a proposal for a $1 billion choice program, have largely fallen flat in Congress. Lawmakers, did however, include language in the recent tax overhaul law allowing families to use their 529 plans—previously just for college savings—for private school.

And she made a pitch in her speech for more individualized learning, in part through technology.

"Students should be able to learn at their own pace and pursue the things they are interested in, not simply get batch-processed along," DeVos said.

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Back to School Tour 

Day One of DeVos' tour included stops at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She visited a trio of programs aimed at "entrepreneurship" including Project ENGAGES, which pairs students at six high schools in Atlanta, with Tech scientists, for help with "real world" engineering, science, and technology research projects. She also visited CREATE-X, which trains Tech students to launch start-ups, and "InVenture," which hosts an innovation competition nicknamed "American Idol for Nerds," after the popular singing show. She was met by protestors at Tech, according to the Associated Press. 

While at Georgia Tech, DeVos demonstrated a new application that will allow students to submit or renew their Free Application for Federal Financial Aid, or FAFSA, from a mobile device

On Thursday, DeVos plans to stop off at RISE Center on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, an early-childhood education program serving both students in special education and their general education peers.

And she is slated to visit a career and technical education facility at Shelton State Community College, also in Tuscaloosa. DeVos and Trump have talked a lot about career education. But they have yet to kick additional federal resources towards it. In fact, Trump's first budget proposal sought a $168 million cut to the $1.1 billion program. (Congress did not go along with that.)

Also on Thursday, DeVos is scheduled to stop by Lexington, Miss., in Holmes Country, one of the poorest counties in the country, about an hour from the state capital in Jackson. She'll visit Holmes County High Schools Advanced Placement program, which is co-taught via SKYPE by professors at Yale University..  And she plans to hold a roundtable with homeschoolers.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and G. P. "Bud" Peterson, President of Georgia Tech, confer during a meeting at Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Oct. 3, where she met with students and promoted a new mobile FAFSA app that's touted to streamline the financial aid application process.

--Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Protestors chant slogans at the entrance to the Wardlaw Center at Georgia Tech University, where Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was meeting with students on Oct 3.

--Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

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