Secretary DeVos’ Education Freedom Tour Kickoff Speech


Good morning and welcome, everybody. You are an unnervingly quiet audience. Thank you for complying with general expectations. I would like to welcome everybody here today
and obviously to welcome and thank Secretary DeVos, all of the elected officials in the
room, parents and staff, friends of Saint Marcus, and of course, our eighth-grade scholars. Thank you for taking the time to be here. Last week, the state of Wisconsin released
the results of the 2019 Forward Exam. The exam once again confirmed what we already
knew: Wisconsin has one of the widest achievement gaps of any of the states anywhere in the
union. In Wisconsin, tragically, only eleven percent
of African American eighth grade students scored proficient or advanced in reading. And just eight percent were proficient or
advanced in Math. Locally, the four closest schools to Saint
Marcus, public and private, had reading proficiency rates of seven percent, five percent, four
percent, and two percent. These are tragic results with enormous ramifications
for children, for families, and for our community. It’s within this broader context that the
staff, the students, and the parents of Saint Marcus are working like crazy to close the
achievement gap and prove what’s possible when young people are given access to great
schools. As a result, over eighty seven percent of
Saint Marcus alumni go onto graduate from high school in four years and on the 2019
Forward Exam, fifty six percent of Saint Marcus eighth graders scored proficient or advanced
in Math. (Applause) That number exceeded the statewide
average for all eighth graders by twenty percent, and Saint Marcus students outperformed their
peers in wealthy suburbs of Grafton, the Oconomowoc area, and Glendale River Hills. We are extremely proud of what Saint Marcus
students are accomplishing. (Applause) However, as we all know, life is
not all about test scores or even academic performance. Of far greater significance are questions
of faith, identity, character, and the development of the critical competencies, the success
Guided by our core values of Christ first, biblical discipleship, sacrificial love, and
radical expectations we will continue to strive until every child in their city has the freedom
to access an exceptional school. We are deeply thankful for all of your support
and for leaders like Secretary DeVos who made it possible for schools like Saint Marcus
to thrive. Thank you for all again for joining us today,
please join now with me in welcoming eighth-grade student Jamie DeVos who will introduce the
Secretary. Betsy DeVos serves as the 11th U.S. Secretary
of Education. For more than 3 decades, she has been on the
front lines of the fight for the better and more options for students of all ages. She has already helped expand opportunities
for students in 25 states and the District of Columbia. As Secretary, she recognizes that every student
is unique, and each one needs the freedom to pursue education in ways and places that
work for them. Her focus is on expanding education freedom,
transforming Federal Student Aid, opening multiple pathways for higher education and
returning power to students, parents, teachers, and local communities. Her leadership has already resulted in expanding
529 education for apprenticeship opportunities restoring year-round access to Pell grants
creating new partnerships or apprenticeship opportunities, increase of innovation options
for higher education, and pulling back federal outreach by the Department. The daughter of a public-school teacher, Secretary
DeVos received a B.A. from Kalvin College and has been married to her husband Dick DeVos
for 40 years. They have 4 children and 8 grandchildren. Please help me to welcome Betsy DeVos. Well, thank you so much Jamie for that kind
introduction and thank you all for letting me be here today with you. I have really enjoyed my visit to the school,
to a number of the classrooms, and meeting many of the students. It was exciting to see their excitement about
learning. And it’s just really a thrill to see that
and to be here. Well, it’s hard to see summer end, isn’t it? Especially a lake Michigan summer. But “back to school” season is an exciting
time of year. I think it’s useful, as we begin any new season,
to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are, and importantly, where we want to go. Students, we’re here because of you-and for
you. In fact, everything about education should
be focused solely on you. After all, as a nation, we’ve committed to
help each student prepare for the future. Some people confuse that as a particular commitment
to a building, to a system, or to a particular way of learning. But your education must be about who you are
and all that you see for yourself, for your family, your community, and importantly for
our country. That’s what I like about Saint Marcus. This school community is built around giving
students what they need. Something important is happening here. You’re doing things differently, and as a
result, students who learn here far and away outperform their peers, and we just heard
more about that from Superintendent Tyson. I think that has to do with how you are so
intentional about cultivating the relationship between student, parent, and teacher. You call it a covenant-indeed, a sacred promise-to
do everything in your power “to ensure academic success.” Your students, your families, and your great
teachers choose to commit to this covenant. You each acknowledge that everyone has a role
to play, and that you all depend on one another. This should be commonly understood. Somewhat obvious and normal. But we know it all too often isn’t, and it
wasn’t always this way in Milwaukee. Parents, teachers: you remember the problems
you and your students faced years ago. Fewer than 60 percent of students finished
high school. Students’ confidence crushed, teachers frustrated,
and parents heartbroken. Everyone wanted something different. Something better. Then, along came “Polly.” You all know the “mother” of our movement,
Annette Williams, “Polly. She wanted better for her own children, and
for children in her own community. She couldn’t bear to see her city’s students
struggling, so she did something about it. Polly worked with anyone and everyone to help
students-and pushed back against anyone who didn’t. She and civil rights icon Howard Fuller fought
their own political party, the NAACP, and the unions. And they won when Governor Tommy Thompson,
who was from a different political party, established the Milwaukee Parental Choice
program. They all put politics aside and did what was
right for kids. And I would just say there are so many otherers
with us here today that have been a part of that equation as well. They believed that students matter. It didn’t matter who their parents were, nor
where they lived, nor what color they were, or who they knew, or how much they had in
their pockets. All that mattered was that students were students. Polly’s will to win 30 years ago was the first
of many victories for students and families. At first, the program was small, able to empower
only a few of Milwaukee’s parents. But as demand expanded, so did the program. Today, the Parental Choice program and others
like it serve about 37,000 students statewide, including almost every student here at St.
Marcus. You wouldn’t be here-and I wouldn’t be here-if
not for the courage of Polly, Howard, and the parents who joined them in the fight. So, I’ve come to Milwaukee-the birthplace
of education freedom-to stand on the shoulders of giants and say: That now is the time to
ignite a new birth of freedom for all of America’s students. We have a bold plan to do just that-an American
education freedom agenda. The freedom to learn. The freedom to grow. The freedom to advance. The freedom to pursue the education that works
for you. Students in control of their pathway to a
successful education, career, and life. Families in control of how, when, and where
their students will learn best. Teachers in control of their classrooms and
their careers. States and communities-not Washington, D.C.-in
control of local decisions. Why is this freedom so desperately needed
today? Because what we’re doing-what we’ve been doing-isn’t
working. Open up our Nation’s Report Card and you’ll
see what I mean. Two in three of our Nation’s 8th graders aren’t
learning what they need to be prepared for their futures. And consider this: The United States ranks
24th in reading, 25th in science, and 40th in math in the world. Think about it. These statistics have very real consequences
for our future. For one, students can’t pass military entrance
exams. Nearly one in four Americans who want to serve
are turned away because they fail the Army’s basic test. I also think of my recent visit to an Indiana
prison. The warden told me that the biggest problem
there is not violence or discipline. It’s illiteracy. Then there’s the story of a father whose son,
a recent high school graduate, was honored in the local newspaper. Dad’s pride turned to disappointment after
he discovered his son couldn’t read or comprehend the article. So, dad marched over to the high school principal’s
office with his son and the newspaper in tow and asked his son to read the article to the
principal. He couldn’t. Then the father pointedly asked the principal
how he could’ve graduated his son-or anyone-who can’t read. There are still too many who don’t know how
to read. There are still too many who don’t know how
to add, subtract, divide, or multiply. And too many have no power to do anything
about it. That’s because the education cabal puts other
issues above what’s right for students. Mixed-up priorities are borne out in the numbers. Consider that American taxpayers spend-on
average- about $13,000 per student, per year. With an average class size of 21 students,
that adds up to $273,000 per classroom, per year. We know the average classroom teacher makes
about $60,000 annually. So, where does the rest of the money go? More than $200,000 per classroom and teachers
are still buying school supplies out of their pockets. Well, here’s the dirty little secret: it’s
to highly paid administrators, coordinators, consultants, assistant principals, assistant
superintendents-layers and layers of bureaucracy. The growth in non-instructional school staff
has increased nine times faster than student enrollment growth. It just doesn’t add up. And though Federal taxpayer spending is less
than 9 percent of total education spending, over the past 40 years taxpayers have spent
well-over one trillion dollars at the Federal level alone trying to improve student outcomes. And the research shows almost no progress
in closing the achievement gap. Yet, there are many in Washington still arguing
to spend more-way more-doing more of the same things. Our sole focus should be on how to do better-starting
today. Doing better begins by expanding freedom. Let me paint a picture of what that might
mean. Students, education freedom for you could
look like this: If you need more time to learn a concept or lesson, you get it. If you need less time, you can move on. If you want to study a language or a subject
that your school building doesn’t offer, you can learn it somewhere else. If you don’t like to study behind a desk and
you learn better in a lab or in a garden or between skyscrapers, you can do that. If you want hands-on experiences to help decide
your learning pathway, you can have those. You should be free to learn in any way and
in any place that works for you. Teachers, education freedom for you could
look like this: If you want to try something new in your classroom that you think will
better help your students, you can. If you want to mentor other teachers, you
can do that, and you should be rewarded for it. If you want to control your professional development
and career path, you’d have the power to do so. You should be free to teach in any way and
in any place that works for you and your students-and you should be properly paid for your success. Parents, education freedom for you could look
like this: If the government-assigned school isn’t working for your child, you can take
him or her anywhere else. And if your school is working for your child,
you can stay put. Another parent’s freedom to make a choice
doesn’t mean you have to make the same choice. If you want to homeschool your children for
part of the week and send them to a classical academy the rest of the week, you can do that. If one type of learning or instruction is
best for your son and another is better for your daughter, you have the flexibility to
make those choices. If a school closer to your work is a better
fit for your family, that’s your choice. You should be free to make the decisions that
work best for your children and your family. We know American families want more control
and more options when it comes to education. That’s why every poll shows growing, bipartisan
support for education freedom. And for every approach to education freedom-public
charter schools, vouchers, education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships-support
crosses ethnic and political lines. Education freedom policies work. We just need more of them. Many more. That’s why this Administration has put forward
the most transformative idea for American education in decades: Education Freedom Scholarships. I hope you’ve seen our proposal. I don’t want to dive into the details here;
you can visit our website for those, ed.gov/freedom. What I do want to talk about is what Education
Freedom Scholarships will mean. For the student who wants to gain valuable
career skills by apprenticing, perhaps at Harley Davidson or John Deere, she can use
an Education Freedom Scholarship to learn her craft while learning her core subjects. For the student who is bullied at his government-assigned
school, he can use an Education Freedom Scholarship to learn elsewhere. To the student who wants to get a head start
on college credit while completing her high school studies, she can use an Education Freedom
Scholarship to do just that. For the single mom who works three jobs just
to make ends meet while her kid is trapped in a school that’s chronically failing him,
she can use an Education Freedom Scholarship to give her son opportunities for a better
life. Think of Education Freedom Scholarships as
keys to unlocking the opportunities you want to pursue. This isn’t about picking a school building. That’s thinking too small. Instead, think about unleashing thousands
of not yet imagined ways for students of all ages to learn. On last year’s Back to School tour, I saw
some great examples. This year, I’m in one now, we’ll head across
the Midwest to see more innovations and options that are meeting kids’ needs. Students, you are our future. Nothing should limit your success, and nothing
should be off-limits if it helps you learn and grow. I loved learning about Terrance, a St. Marcus
grad. TJ as he likes to be known. His father died when he was young, but his
mother Deanna was not about to let that derail TJ’s bright future. He did well in school but wasn’t being challenged
and learning behind a desk all day didn’t work for him. So, his mom used the Milwaukee Parental Choice
Program to enroll TJ here at St. Marcus. And, for the first time, someone at school
asked TJ what he was passionate about learning. TJ is a food artist. He wanted to know more about making his interest
a profession. So, St. Marcus focused his studies around
the culinary arts. He even prepared a few meals for his classmates
using food grown right here at St. Marcus. And he’s interning at a renowned local restaurant
where he continues to develop his culinary skills. Who knows, he could be a future award-winning
chef, keep an eye on TJ. His mom believes that because of Milwaukee’s
voucher program, because of St. Marcus, because he was free to learn in ways that worked for
him, TJ found his purpose. All of America’s mothers and fathers want
that for their sons and daughters. All of America’s families want more options,
more choices, more freedom. Everyone-no matter their age-needs the freedom
to learn, to grow, to pursue their passions, to use their talents, and to achieve their
fullest potential. In every student I meet across the country
I am filled with great hope. Ahead there is daylight. And here’s a glimpse into the future: American
education is bustling. It’s dynamic. It’s innovative. Adaptive. Personalized. Relevant. And our students are number one in the world. So, let’s recommit ourselves to the cause
of education freedom-right here where it all began. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the first
freedom students, let’s resolve together-form our own covenant-to finish the work that was
started here more than 30 years ago. Thank you all. May God bless America and our Nation’s future,
her students. Thank you. Madame Secretary, I would like to thank you
once again. Not only for visiting Saint Marcus in Milwaukee
today, but also for your incredible leadership in the area of education freedom. We are extremely grateful and thankful for
your work. Thank you to all of you. Thank you for taking the time to join us today. Thank you for all that you do for the children
of Saint Marcus and our community. We greatly appreciate you. Thank you and God bless. This concludes our program.

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