Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is calling on Americans to embrace a vision of “education freedom” that empowers students and parents with a “multitude of pathways” toward new opportunities.
DeVos, speaking during a question-and-answer session Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, said one such pathway would be educational savings accounts to benefit military families who don’t want to send their children to failing public schools.
“For too many decades,” Americans have had a “singular focus on going to a four-year college or university,” DeVos said during the exchange with Kay Coles James, president of The Heritage Foundation. “But there is a multitude of pathways [with] many opportunities beyond high school.”
James and DeVos had a wide-ranging discussion at CPAC that touched on the Trump administration’s policy goals, the prospects for school choice, options for military families, and the status of First Amendment freedoms in educational settings.
DeVos said military families face unique challenges in meeting the educational needs of their children, and that making available federal funds for use in education savings accounts is one solution. The Heritage Foundation has championed the idea.
More than one-third of active-duty military families include school-aged children, DeVos said. These families should be able to “tap into education savings accounts” and use them to “customize” the learning experiences of their children, she said.
Military families tend to be mobile, “moving from base to base,” she said, so “it can be difficult for them to have continuity.”
But by accessing education savings accounts, military families would have the ability to choose from options ranging from online learning to attending a charter school, or a combination, DeVos said.
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President Donald Trump has been “very eloquent” in helping students to understand at a young age that they can pursue many avenues as alternatives to a four-year college, she said.
About 6 million jobs remain unfilled across America, she told the CPAC audience, because of “a mismatch in skills.”
James asked DeVos to comment on the high-profile assaults on “freedom of expression” in public schools and institutions of higher education. The Heritage Foundation president also made the point that the left’s affinity for “diversity” does not extend to other opinions and ideas.
DeVos said that when she was in college it was a place where she could “entertain new thoughts and ideas,” but she now sees the process “controlled” to the point that students cannot speak freely.
School choice figured prominently in the discussion. Although the “wealthy and well-connected” benefit from school choice, including private schools, the same is not true for many low-income families and average Americans, James said.
Federal grant programs help cover the costs of higher education, DeVos said, but these options “are not as ubiquitous” at the K-12 level.
While school vouchers have been a valuable “mechanism” to extend school choice, she suggested, any number of emerging “new methodologies” will make it possible to expand the movement.
The education secretary also encouraged states to take advantage of the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” signed into law by President Barack Obama, which she said could help states “address the needs of individual students.”
DeVos reminded her audience that “most education policy happens at the state level.”
CPAC, the largest annual national gathering of conservative activists, runs Thursday to Saturday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside Washington.