EDUCATION

Why I have high hopes for Betsy DeVos to lead Trump’s Education Department

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2016 photo, President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for photographs at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. Trump has chosen charter school advocate DeVos as Education Secretary in his administration.

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2016 photo, President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for photographs at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J. Trump has chosen charter school advocate DeVos as Education Secretary in his administration.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

I remember the quote well, “My daughter used to walk over hypodermic needles and through metal detectors -- just to enter the very school that the government deemed a failure. But now, with her scholarship, she’s safe and thriving academically.” 

Before Betsy DeVos, thousands of parents, mostly minority and below the poverty line, like the one I talked to a few years ago, lacked the empowerment to make decisions that shaped their child’s destiny. The government, faced with no competition and an appetite for protecting its power, taught one way -- their way, with little to no innovation. That was until Betsy DeVos began her education reform movement in the 1990’s. 

I’ve been lucky to work for Betsy and her various education reform organizations since 2005 in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and nine other states – all with the mindset of supporting policy and candidates that passionately want to empower parents to make decisions for their children. 

And that’s the legacy of Betsy DeVos. A change agent that doesn’t talk the talk, but walks the walk -by investing her time, people and yes, money, to save children trapped in failing schools. That investment, in a multitude of states, is an overwhelming success because the ultimate outcome is to shift power away from government and give it to parents who simply know how to best educate their child.

In 1963, Alabama governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to block Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling at the University of Alabama. As a native Alabamian, it still serves as a symbol of hate and discrimination that was an embarrassment to my state, and our nation. That symbol has a new dichotomy today; and it’s the very media, government officials and teachers unions that stand in front of poor, mostly minority families, denying their child access to the best education possible. That drug called power does not help children or parents. And Donald Trump should be commended for nominating Betsy DeVos to blow it up.

But the school choice opposition’s voice is not overt like Wallace in the 60s. They wrap themselves in poll tested phrasing to win the PR war. How long have we heard the media and union officials say education reformers want to “destroy public education” and speak in terms of letting their allies create new education plans that will work over time, “Just give it 10 years” they say – only to hear the same verbiage used 10 years later after another failure and lost generation of children.

Betsy’s philosophy has always been that we need to stand up for those left behind right now, not in 10 years, not even tomorrow. Children’s lives today are worth just as much as those who will be around in 10 years.

Case in point, the state of Louisiana. In 2008, Betsy worked across the aisle by recruiting two Democratic African-American legislators to sponsor the Louisiana Scholarship Program (with a reform minded governor in Bobby Jindal). And it passed that year for only the city of New Orleans. Betsy didn’t stop there. She immediately began working to expand the program statewide so all children could benefit. The unions, media and even some allies, told her not to do it – it was going to be treacherous. She kept fighting. By 2012, the Louisiana legislature passed a statewide scholarship law.

Betsy’s diligent focus on education reform in Louisiana helped pull students trapped in failing schools out of the abyss. The results? According to the 2015/16 Louisiana Department of Education annual report, the state now has over 74,000 students enrolled in charter schools and it has gone from zero private school scholarships awarded (to students in poor performing schools), to approximately 8,000 today (and the program is in demand, receiving double the amount of applicants every year), bringing the total publicly funded choice enrollment to over 82,000 students. 

Betsy’s organization, the American Federation for Children, has conducted a parent survey in Louisiana, over the past seven years, to gauge the opinions of the parents whose children were being served by the private scholarship program. The results are staggering –91.2% of scholarship parents are satisfied with the program, 91.6% of parents have seen academic progress with their child, and 98.6% say their child is safe and welcomed in their school.

Betsy’s edict was always clear – we weren’t waiting for the “10 year plan” to run its course. She acted fast and swift and it may have saved an entire generation of Louisiana’s most vulnerable children.

Charter school laws and the scholarship program were passed because Betsy DeVos led. She wasn’t dogmatic about the vouchers or charter schools; she was dogmatic on making sure we empowered parents to make the best education decision for their kids.

Leadership on the education reform issue means having a tough skin and you know you’ve hit a nerve when the teachers unions are in full-panic mode since PEOTUS Donald J. Trump named Betsy DeVos secretary of education-designate. No doubt there will be a contentious confirmation looming once the new administration takes office. 

But Betsy DeVos is standing up to the bullies in the schoolhouse door. She has stood up for those without a voice and she’s done it by aggressively championing their stories at the ballot box and in the halls of government.

The education world has changed and with Betsy as the next Secretary of Education, more of that is yet to come.

Phillip Stutts is CEO of Go BIG Media, Inc. He has worked for education reform clients since 2005 (including the American Federation for Children, All Children Matter, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and multiple charters schools). Stutts was also an appointee to the Department of Education under President George W. Bush.