When a neighborhood school is failing its students, for many the first response is to suggest that more funding is needed. While it might be the case that increased funding helps in certain situations, the fact remains that too many students are not getting access to the education they deserve. We saw this all too well in January, when it was reported that the Obama Administration’s $7 billion investment in our nation’s lowest performing schools, “failed to produce meaningful results.”
I grew up poor, went to four schools by the fifth grade, and almost failed out of high school. I know the challenges facing so many low-income and minority students. The fact remains that every neighborhood is unique, every student learns in a different manner, and every teacher teaches in their own distinctive fashion. I have come to the conclusion that we need to ensure students and their families have a variety of educational options at their disposal. My belief in school choice stems directly from that notion, and is a primary driver of my support for Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.
Over the past week, my office has received quite a few calls from across South Carolina and the nation in regards to Mrs. DeVos’ nomination. I want to take this opportunity to explain my support for her, and why I believe we need a strong, consistent reformer to head the United States Department of Education.
While some attack Mrs. DeVos for spending millions on education initiatives, I praise her for those efforts. She has made it her life’s mission to help students in underperforming schools have a better educational future, and has more than 30 years of education experience. She recognizes that we have been fighting to fix our public schools for more than 50 years, and that new innovations are necessary for our students.
Being pro-school choice does not mean you want to tear down public schools; in fact the goal is the opposite. We believe that by introducing competition, we can make every school perform better. That goes for public, charter, and private schools. The notion that Betsy DeVos or anyone else wants to destroy our public school systems is flat wrong.
We have seen school choice programs around the country not only improve graduation rates for their own students, but force the public system to improve as well. In Washington, D.C., the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which serves more than 80 percent minority families making an average of $21,000 a year, sees 90-plus percent of its students graduate. In 2011, traditional public schools in Washington graduated 56 percent, and as OSP has continued to flourish the public schools have seen their graduation rates rise to 68 percent. While that is still way too low, improvements have been made. Programs in New York City and Milwaukee have brought a brighter future to thousands of kids, and we are seeing that success spread across the country.
Further we have already seen school choice programs work well for decades utilizing federal dollars – both Pell Grants and the GI Bill allow recipients to go to the school of their choice. I find it hard to believe that we are ok with this for higher education, but not K-12.
Additionally, there seems to be some sort of misconception about the new administration’s beliefs regarding the federal government’s role in education. When Democrats like U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer say Mrs. DeVos “would single-handedly decimate our public education system,” they are willfully ignoring the actual goal here – which is to return power over education to the states and local communities. This sort of blatant hyperbole only further divides us, when we should be coming together for the sake of our children. Mrs. DeVos does not want the federal government to even have the power to “decimate” our public schools, and neither do I. Nor do the rest of my Republican colleagues.
This is shown through my CHOICE Act, which seeks to let parents of children with special needs utilize funding under IDEA to find the best school for their child. The bill specifically gives states the option to use the dollars that way – or not, and ensures that participating schools comply with federal IDEA requirements. Mrs. DeVos has also “committed to enforcing all federal laws and protecting the hard won rights of students with disabilities.” Those are purposeful, policy-driven decisions, because we feel that educational decisions are best left in the hands of parents and local communities instead of bureaucrats in Washington, and that the rights of all students should be protected.
So while we may disagree on Mrs. DeVos’ nomination, I hope we are able to disagree while recognizing we are both doing what we believe to be best for our nation’s students. It is amazing to see such passion about education, which too often gets overlooked for more trivial matters. I want to thank you all for sharing your opinion, both for and against Mrs. DeVos’ nomination, and my commitment to you remains the same as it was when I was elected three months ago, two years ago, and on back – I will fight every day to ensure that the American Dream is alive and well for every single family in this nation.
The writer is a U.S. Senator for South Carolina.