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Leadership Insights event features former U.S. cabinet member

September 14, 2023

Betsy DeVos served as 11th U.S. Secretary of Education

Northwood University welcomed former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Wednesday as part of a Leadership Insights: A View from the Helm speaker series event.

“America’s Free Enterprise University is exceedingly blessed to have hosted The Honorable Betsy DeVos,” stated Northwood President Kent MacDonald, who praised DeVos for having the courage to stand up for educational freedom for students of all ages.

Wednesday’s event was the fourth installment of the Leadership Insights: A View from the Helm series that is moderated by Dr. Kristin Stehouwer, academic vice president and provost for Northwood University. The series features highly successful leaders who answer questions from students, faculty and staff.

Questions ran that gamut from what DeVos looks for when she’s assembling her leadership teams (wisdom and intelligence) and what advice she’d give to her younger self (don’t get lost in the details), to where she got the idea to name her book, “Hostages No More,” which Stehouwer described as an unvarnished account of DeVos’ time as the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education. 

DeVos explained the origins of her book title come from a quote from Horace Mann, the founder of America’s government-run education system. Mann said, “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.”

“The title was meant to be provocative,” said DeVos. “In the last three or four years, many parents have realized just how much their students have been held hostage to a system that serves itself rather than students. So the title was meant to get people’s attention (because the book) is an account of the long-time efforts to really change a system that has been resistant to change for over 175 years now.”

During the pandemic, parents were given a unique look into the education being delivered to their children, DeVos said. They could see what their children were being taught (and in some cases, not taught). With this new level of understanding, many parents felt they had to re-engage with their students educational experiences in ways they hadn’t before. At the same time, research has found the pandemic had devastating impacts on learning. It’s unclear if students who fell behind will be able to recover — and it certainly will be unrecoverable for some if they stay in the same education as before.

“Education freedom policies that will allow for different approaches and experiences really are a silver lining for those kids,” DeVos added.

Education freedom is not the same thing as a school of choice.

“Education freedom really gives you the opportunity to think more broadly about what a child’s educational experience can look like,” DeVos said, referencing parents who during the pandemic created learning pods and one-room schoolhouses with a 21st century vibe, and other arrangements that did not look like the industrial classroom model.

DeVos noted while other areas have experienced fundamental change over the past 175 years, education in America has not. She said there are a lot of vested interests that have made sure that any K-12 education changes are in the system’s interest. She primarily blames teacher unions, which she called school unions that work to protect themselves, not teachers and students.

“They have continued to control a government-run system that is unresponsive to the very individuals it’s supposed to serve,” DeVos said.

DeVos was optimistic about the future of education freedom in the U.S., pointing to states like Arizona, which has its funding follow the students, rather than being attached to public schools.

“Parents are thrilled with what they are able to do and how their children are taking to these different approaches like ducks to water,” she noted.

When asked about the greatest criticism to education freedom, DeVos said the most common one is that allowing funding to follow the child takes money away from public schools.

“(But) education is not about schools or buildings or systems. Education is about individual kids, and we spend more than $750 billion a year on K-12 education today. Yet we talk about systems and buildings because those are the things that build up at the expense of the kids who, in way too many places, are failing because of the system they are assigned to and have no way out of,” she said. “So I try to turn that argument around and say the money for the child’s education should follow that child to wherever he or she will learn best, wherever he or she will unlock their full potential in the greatest way.”

DeVos said her favorite mechanism at this time for education freedom is through education savings accounts that give families the flexibility to customize their child’s education. She said critics of this idea claim parents who need alternative options the most for their children are not equipped to make those changes.

“That to me is the most offensive, patronizing thing you could ever say,” DeVos said. “I have met hundreds, if not thousands, of parents who had opportunities (through private scholarship) who have told me how grateful they are that their child had this chance. There is no one who loves their child more than the parent, and they are best equipped to make these decisions.”

Among other topics Wednesday:

• When asked about a pivotal moment in her life that she has had to make a tough decision, DeVos referenced her resignation as chair of the Michigan GOP in 2000, which is discussed in detail in her new book.

• The former Education Secretary expressed support of abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, which was established in 1979. She said the department was formed to lesson the achievement gap between lowest and highest performing students, and it has not succeeded. Rather, it takes away resources that could go directly to the states.

• DeVos expressed concerns about the Biden administration attempts to overturn changes her administration made to Title IX that added new measures to ensure the due process rights of students accused of misconduct, among other changes. She said proposed changes would also put women’s sports in jeopardy by allowing males to compete in them. 

• Regarding student loan debt, DeVos said the federal government should never have continued payment suspension for over three years. She said the notion that the president can wipe away student debt with the stroke of a pen is illegal – and that’s why the Supreme Court struck down President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel college loan debt for tens of millions of student loan borrowers. DeVos said it’s also morally wrong to ask two out of three Americans who never took out debt or who paid their loans back to assume the debt of the one-third who currently have student loans. Also, she noted, “Somebody, somewhere, at some point will have to pay for it.”

• When asked what she wants to be remembered for, DeVos — who noted her faith is foundational to everything about her and everything she does — said: “It would be awesome just to be remembered as someone who tried to do the best they could do with what God gave her.”

• As for the future, DeVos said she wants to continue to advocate for education freedom policies for kids around the country, while highlighting the places and ways that people are thinking differently and providing different educational experiences for children. “We have had such a set view of what K-12 education is,” she said. “It’s hard to think differently when our experience has been the same thing, essentially, for 175 years.”

DeVos, a longtime Northwood University supporter, called Northwood a forward-leaning institution.

“Northwood has been a leader in thinking entrepreneurially … It equips students with a knowledge of the system of capitalism and how important business is to our national wellbeing,” she said. “ … Northwood is standing tall amongst higher education institutions for providing value and great preparation for successful careers in whatever paths your students choose.”

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