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Secretary DeVos' Harvard Speech on School Choice

Last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Harvard University to speak on school choice. She delivered a strong speech (a fact easily lost amidst the reflexive caterwauling). She articulated points that aren't made often or forcefully enough. This was noteworthy because DeVos has not always been an especially effective advocate for her cause, tending to lean on unfortunate talking points and failing to explain the practical, intuitive case for choice as part of a broader educational vision. While the speech was far from perfect (it could've done without the whole food truck analogy), it's worth highlighting four passages which deserve particular notice for their themes and welcome tenor.

DeVos pushed back on those who insist that support for school choice is necessarily an "attack" on public education and argued that choice can be wholly consonant with the historic mission of public education:

Defenders of the "system" . . . have done a mighty fine job setting the scene for that house of horrors in the press. They did so by trying to paint an indelible line, forcing a false dichotomy: if you support giving parents any option—any say—you must therefore be diametrically opposed to public schools, public school teachers and public school students. Being for equal access and opportunity—being for choice—is not being against anything . . . I'm not for any type of school over another. But the definitions we have traditionally worked from have become tools that divide us. Isn't "the public" made up of students and parents? Isn't "public money" really their money—the taxpayer's money? And doesn't every school aim to serve the public good? A school that prepares its students to lead successful lives is a benefit to all of us.

She used her Ivy League setting to make the case that private provision need not clash with notions of public good:

The definition of public education should be to educate the public. That's why we should fight less about the word that comes before "school." I suspect all of you here at Harvard, a private school, will take your education and contribute to the public good. When you chose to attend Harvard, did anyone suggest you were against public universities? No, you and your family sat down and figured out which education environment would be the best fit for you. You compared options, and made an informed decision . . . Instead of dividing the public when it comes to education, the focus should be on the ends, not the means.

She suggested that expanded educational options can benefit everyone, and not just children stuck in struggling inner-city schools:

I recently went on a tour of the heartland to visit the teachers, parents, and students who are shaping their own futures . . . What I saw was encouraging. Traditional public schools, charter public schools, independent private schools, parochial schools, homeschools—even a high school at a zoo! They were all different, all with unique approaches. But what they all had in common was just that: a deliberate focus on serving their students—and students and parents chose them. What worked in those schools, for those students, might not work everywhere. And it might not work for you. But it worked for them.

And she emphasized that efforts to expand choice ought not be driven by Washington:

States are different, families are dynamic and children are unique. Each should be free to pursue different avenues that lead each child to his or her fullest future. That's why I wholeheartedly believe the future of choice does not begin with a new federal mandate from Washington! That might sound counterintuitive to some, coming from the U.S. Secretary of Education, but after eight months in Washington—and three decades working in states—I know if Washington tries to mandate "choice," all we'll end up with is a mountain of mediocrity, a surge of spending and a bloat of bureaucracy to go along with it.

I found that last bit particularly reassuring. Of course, it seems to reflect a big shift from how DeVos talked about school choice during the first half of 2017. This is notable. Why? The right's divide over whether Congress should craft a big school-choice initiative reflected a split between those with a choice-centric view of education policy and those who tend to see things through the lens of oft-bitter experience with Washington. The choice-firsters saw Trump/DeVos as their chance for a big win, and judged any risks to be minimal compared to the payoff. Those who spend more time focused on Washington were more concerned about all that could go wrong, and skeptical the potential payoff was worth the risk.

Nine months on, DeVos' remarks were much more "tread carefully" than "go for it." That seems a healthy evolution. Now, if DeVos can marry that restraint with the kind of articulate and unflinching rhetoric on display last Thursday, she just may start to get the hang of this bully pulpit thing.

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