Prepared Remarks from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to Foundation for Excellence in Education National Summit on Education Reform

Nashville, Tennessee – Thank you, Denisha for that very kind introduction. I am so glad Denisha has joined our team at the U.S. Department of Education. Even though she’s no longer a child, it’s kids like Denisha who keep me focused. They are who I fight for every day, the driving force behind all we do.

I’m happy to be back with so many friends at Excel in Ed, especially as you celebrate the 10th anniversary of this National Summit on Education Reform. The Summit has welcomed visionary and inspiring leaders from across government, business and academia, and, as those of you who attended the 2011 Summit in San Francisco will remember, even some friends from Sesame Street made an “unscheduled” guest appearance! I hope they’re not joining us again today!

While this certainly is not my first Summit, it is my first as Secretary of Education.

It is truly an honor to serve America’s students and to speak with you today at this important convening of advocates, policymakers and elected officials, all of whom share a common goal: to equip every child in America with the education necessary to achieve his or her God-given potential.

Governor Bush, Patricia and the entire Excel in Ed team: hundreds of thousands of kids – and former kids, like Denisha – have been able to do just that, thanks in no small part to your efforts.

On behalf of them and their parents – and on behalf of the millions more who deserve that same opportunity – a very sincere and heartfelt thank you for your tireless work and for your continued commitment.

Like many of you, I’ve been involved in education reform for some time. For me, it’s been 30 years. Now, some folks would think that means I should be in the twilight of my career – looking back and winding down with an eye toward retirement.

Well, I do have a bit of bad news to share with you today…

Bad news, that is, for the teacher union bosses, the defenders of the status quo, the “education-expert” bloggers and muckrakers and many of our friends on the Democratic side of the aisle in Congress. Allow me to borrow a line from the great American author Mark Twain: The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!

I’m not going anywhere! In fact I’m just getting started!

And to get started, let’s talk a bit about where I think we as a country need to go. But first, let’s step back.

You would never know it by watching the news or reading the papers today, but this whole notion of “education reform” isn’t exactly new. In fact, you can trace its roots all the way back to ancient times and Plato’s writings in The Republic. That’s right – 380 B.C.

From the ancient Greek debate, through the Roman Empire, across early Europe, on to America’s widespread adoption of the Prussian model, past progressive theories, amid the important advances made during the civil rights era, through today’s continued debate, education reform has commanded the attention of some of history’s greatest and most influential figures.

And while each one of those transition points could generate hours of debate and discussion, I want to go back to 1983.

In April 1983, A Nation At Risk had just been released. Most everyone here has heard of it. Commissioned by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrell Bell, it took a hard look at education in America.

The conclusion, as the report’s title hints, was anything but rosy. This is from the summary:

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

And further:

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

That was nearly 35 years ago. And what has changed?

In 1983, A Nation At Risk found that on international tests, America was, quote, “never first or second.” Today, the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, shows America stuck in the middle of our international peers. We are being outpaced and outperformed by countries like China, Germany, Vietnam and the U.K.

We are a nation still at risk. We are a nation at greater risk.

This is unacceptable.

This is inexcusable.

And this is truly un-American.

We can – we must – do better.

We all know this. America knows this. A recent Gallup poll showed the majority of all Americans are dissatisfied with the overall education system in our country.

Something else Americans know: our nation’s broken tax system is well overdue for comprehensive reform. And I am so encouraged that, with the President’s leadership, leaders in Congress are poised to finally do something about it! This Administration believes America succeeds when American workers and job providers keep more of their hard-earned money.

Unfortunately, knowing and doing, especially when it comes to really reforming education, prove to be two very different things. Amidst the data, the numbers, the international comparisons, the debate and the vitriolic rancor from sycophants of the system, it’s really easy to lose sight of what – of whom – we’re really talking.

We’re talking about students, like Trevor. Trevor is from California. He has cerebral palsy, though he’s refused to let it define him. He excelled in elementary and middle school, earning all A’s.

But in high school, his condition made it difficult to navigate multiple floors and a large campus. One day, moving between classes, Trevor fell down a flight of stairs, breaking his knee. His accident crushed his bone, and, it nearly crushed his spirit.

Sadly, Trevor’s school was less than accommodating. They didn’t allow leeway for extra time to transfer classes nor any mechanism to catch up on missed instruction time. This 4.0 GPA high schooler saw his grades tumble and his aspirations fade.

“They really weren’t concerned about Trevor going to college,” Trevor’s mother said. “They really just wanted him to graduate high school.”

In other words, pass him along so they wouldn’t have to deal with him: a sad reality for far too many students in far too many schools.

Thankfully, Trevor and his parents discovered a blended learning charter school that allowed students to take classes online or in person.

Trevor began to thrive academically once again, as he was able to learn from his home.

“I felt excited about education again,” Trevor said. Today, he’s back on path, excelling and fulfilled, with his dream to attend college restored.

And we’re talking about kids like Orlando, from the Florida town whose name he shares. Orlando was born with an innate passion for aviation, and from age 6 knew he wanted to be a pilot. However, his life’s circumstances started stacking up against him.

Shortly after he was born, Orlando’s mother suffered a stroke that left her totally disabled, and as a young grade-schooler, Orlando’s father went to prison. In addition to the challenges at home, Orlando eventually struggled at school, too.

He fell in with a group known as “the little hoodlums.” His grades slipped and he nearly failed his junior year. Looking back, he saw himself headed down the same path as his father.

“I never wanted to be that guy,” Orlando said, “but you can see the little things that lead to someone making the wrong decision or getting arrested one day.”

He saw his dream of becoming a pilot, evaporating. “I started looking at the financial requirements and grade requirements, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to make it,'” he said. “My mom is disabled. My father was in prison. So I was like, ‘I don’t have any help. This isn’t going to happen.'”

But Orlando did have help. And it came in the form of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and a devoted and caring teacher, Mr. Nieves, who helped Orlando find it.

Through the scholarship, Orlando was able to attend a school that met his individual needs. And as Orlando tells it, everything was different from Day One. “The teachers cared for me and made sure I stayed on top of my work,” Orlando said.

Hope restored, Orlando doubled down on pursuing his dream.

He studied…hard. His teachers pushed him…hard.

And when Orlando walked across the graduation stage last May, as his recently-released father rejoined his family watching in the audience, tears filled Orlando’s eyes – not just for what he was able to accomplish, but for the opportunities that remained ahead as an accepted aeronautical science freshman at Embry-Riddle University.

“The dream really came true – I’m here. It’s a surreal feeling,” Orlando said.

Orlando’s is an outcome every student in America should be able to share, and it’s one every student in America would be able to share if adults would quit fighting over kids and start fighting for them.

And we’re talking about parents, like Shirley, a mom from Pennsylvania with whom I recently spoke. Shirley lives in a tough part of town, and her daughter was afraid of being bullied by the kids in her neighborhood. Attending her assigned neighborhood school terrified her daughter and it broke Shirley’s heart.

Left with no options, Shirley signed up as a driver for a ride sharing company before and after her fulltime day job so she can afford tuition to send her daughter to a safe, Catholic school.

Exhausted and unsure if she could keep up the pace after a year of working multiple jobs, Shirley asked her daughter if she could try her neighborhood school. Her daughter immediately broke into tears. She begged Shirley not to send her there.

“I don’t ask to be rich,” Shirley told me. “All I ask is for my children to have a better life than me. If that means I have to work three jobs, I’ll find a way. I have to do it for my girls,” she said.

And I know she will.

But no parent – no parent – should be left feeling helpless like Shirley. No parent should have to work three jobs in order to send their child to a school that is safe, to a school that works for them.

And we’re talking about kids like Jason and Mitchell Baker, and their sister Jessica from right here in Tennessee.

Jason was diagnosed with ADHD and Dyslexia, while Mitchell lives with Tourette’s syndrome. They both struggled to focus during the school day and they had a tough time interacting with their peers. Their parents tried many different options: their assigned school, private school, blended learning, homeschool co-ops – none seemed to be the right fit for them.

Then they found a virtual school that gave them the opportunity to learn and interact socially at their own pace, but also afforded them the chance to participate in athletics locally. They found the option that worked for their needs.

Jessica, meanwhile, knew that she wanted more from high school than sitting in a classroom for 7 hours a day. She wanted to learn, but she also wanted to go on global service missions, work a part-time job and train to be a ballet dancer.

She tried the school her brothers attended, and found that it was a great fit for what she and her parents wanted for her education, too.

Jessica graduated from the University of Memphis, and Jason and Mitchell are enrolled there now.

But they haven’t stopped there. Inspired by their own experience, these three siblings co-founded their own group to help educate, encourage and empower parents to find options for their children like they and their parents found for them.

Jason, Mitchell and Jessica are here with us today. Guys, could you stand up? Let’s all give them a round of applause.

These are all wonderful success stories. Individuals whose lives have been touched and who are on a new trajectory, with the potential for generational impact.

But for every Denisha, every Trevor and Orlando, every Shirley, every Jessica and Mitchell and Jason, there are more – millions more – whose stories don’t have the same result. Who aren’t afforded the same opportunity.

Who today… right now…sit at kitchen tables…helpless…tears filling their eyes as they contemplate a real and inexcusable possibility: by virtue of their zip code, their family circumstances or their economic means, an education system has assigned them to a future that very well might mean their dream is out of reach.

This is the very real and very human face of a nation still at risk.

These are, all too often, the “forgotten” in our society. They don’t have lobbyists, they don’t have public relations firms, they don’t have untold millions to buy their way out.

But, they have dreams.

They have potential.

They have hope.

Because they have us.

I have a simple question for everyone in this room: What are you going to do?

Lawmakers: how are you going to carry their voices through the halls of your capitol? Will you take a stand? Will you challenge the status quo? Will you fight for them?

Find ways to give your school leaders and your teachers flexibility to do what they know and what they do best: serve their students.

Find solutions to allow funding to follow students so they can learn in the way and at the pace that works for them. Find ways to breakdown artificial barriers of location or distance by exploring the promising potential of online and blended learning – options that did not exist just a few short years ago.

Policymakers: how are you going to put their needs above the needs of a “system”? Will you have the courage to buck the entrenched special interests and do what you know is right for these “forgotten” among us?

Make a commitment to put people before paperwork. Students before systems. Get beyond the walls of your offices and proactively seek the perspective and input of parents, students, teachers, school leaders. Listen with an open mind, especially to the challenges and struggles parents identify. Then act to implement policies in a way that serves them. Our job is not to make life easier for us, but to serve students.

Advocates, community leaders and faith leaders: how will you help amplify their voices? Will you be a catalyst for change in your community?

Will you leverage your spheres of influence to truly rethink education in your communities, your states? Will you support and praise lawmakers and policy makers who take courageous stands on behalf of students and parents?

We are at a time for choosing. We can choose to turn away, to offer platitudes or promises of action “next year.” Or we can say: no more. No more empty rhetoric, no more folding to political pressure, no more accepting by inaction this fundamental injustice that stains the future of the greatest republic in the history of the world. No more.

Let me not discount, in any way, the important work and advances that have been made, many as a direct result of your efforts. And some of the most recent advances have been the most encouraging.

I look to Illinois. Thanks to the courage and leadership of Governor Bruce Rauner and many champions for kids in the legislature, low-income Illinois parents will now have the option to send their kids to a school of their choice.

If it can be done in the backyard of the Chicago Teachers Association, home of the infamous teacher strike just a few short years ago, it can be done anywhere!

And there’s also New Hampshire. New Hampshire is on the verge of passing similar legislation that would give parents in their state more options. Many thanks to Governor Chris Sununu and legislative leaders there as well. Keep pushing and get this done for your students!

We must turn words into action.

Millions of kids today— right now— are trapped in schools that are failing them. Millions more are stuck in schools that are not meeting their individual needs. And their parents have no options, no choices, no way out.

Nearly 30 kids have dropped out of school while I’ve been talking – that’s nearly 1,500 students a day; 521,000 this year and more than 2 million in my term as Secretary. More than the total number of students in the New York City, Los Angles and Chicago School Districts – combined. Or in the entire State of Tennessee – twice. Gone. Take some time and let that sink in.

These aren’t just numbers. These are precious young lives, full of promise and potential; kids who don’t have time to wait until next year, or until next session or until after the next elections. They don’t even have time to wait until tomorrow.

Now is the time to act.

I fully recognize this is a fight.

I acknowledge more times than not, it requires really thick skin.

And I know many of you in this room take arrows in the back— and in the front! – on a daily basis.

But know this:

I stand with you, and, together, we stand with America’s kids – all of them.

Because Denisha is worth it. Trevor and Orlando are worth it. Shirley is worth it. Jessica and Mitchell and Jason are worth it.

Every student and every parent across our great land— each of them are worth it.

America is far too great a country to deny any parent or any student the chance at their dream – the chance a great education affords them.

We owe it to our children to be fearless.

The rising generation represents 100 percent of our future; let’s give them nothing less than 100 percent of our effort.

Thank you for allowing me to be with you. May God bless you and may He bless our future – America’s students.

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