Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Monday sought to convince public school leaders that school choice and local control are important in education.
Speaking to members of The Council of the Great City Schools, a group of the nation's largest urban school districts, DeVos stressed that parents, not Washington politicians, should be making choices about their children's education.
"Parents know better than any politician or administrator the unique needs of each of their children," DeVos said. "Time and again, when parents are empowered to take charge of their children's education, when they have quality options we see the results for students. For me this is just common sense."
DeVos, a longtime advocate of charter and private schools, said parents must be able to pick the right educational setting for their children in the same way that they choose their food, clothing and extracurricular activities. DeVos gave the example of a private school that provides scholarships for low-income, mostly minority students and helps them thrive and added that public and private partnerships were essential in education.
The secretary called for giving more power to parents, teachers and local leaders in making decisions about schools and learning. "Those closest to the problem are often best equipped to solve it," she said. "Let's continue to move power away from Washington, D.C., and into the hands of parents and state and local leaders."
DeVos has spent more than two decades advancing charter schools as well as voucher programs, which give publicly funded scholarships to low-income families to attend private schools. Teachers unions fiercely opposed DeVos' nomination, saying that her efforts are tantamount to defunding public education.
While DeVos stressed that she supports "great public schools" and "all students," her remarks were met with skepticism by some attendees.
Happy Haynes with Denver Public Schools said that private schools cannot possibly accommodate all children across the country and thus attention needs to focus on public schools and how to fund them.
"It concerns me that we lift up a tiny fragment of our student population and say 'this is how it should be' when we know that it's not possible," Haynes said. "I don't support sending public money to private institutions who are not publicly accountable."
DeVos also announced at the conference that the Education Department was releasing new guidance for identifying and assisting struggling schools as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. DeVos said the new rules were giving states greater flexibility and control.
"This streamlined template asks states to provide the department only what's absolutely necessary under the statute, with an eye toward reducing rules, burdensome and unnecessary regulations, and red tape," DeVos said.
But some critics complained that the new accountability guidance was leaving local stakeholders — parents, community leaders and advocacy groups — out of the discussion.
"National PTA is extremely disappointed that stakeholder engagement is no longer prioritized," the organization said in a statement. "Stakeholders, particularly parents, play an essential role in the successful implementation of ESSA and ensuring that all children receive a quality education by providing valuable input and holding states and districts accountable."