Less than one month after her controversial confirmation, new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos took the stage at this year’s CPAC to discuss her vision for education in America.
With little experience in the public school system, her appointment was criticized by many on the left and the right. This resistance from establishments of both parties as well as relentless attacks from the mainstream media was not present as she took the CPAC stage to a crowd of enthusiastic conservatives who constantly demonstrated support for Trump and his cabinet throughout the remainder of the conference.
“My job as Secretary of Education is to make education work for everyone,” DeVos said. “But today we know the system is failing too many kids.”
She was quick to clarify that the “failing” system was not due to teachers but rather to the “education establishment” who have resisted small government school reforms.
Tracy Livingston, candidate for Arizona Superintendent of Public Education, echoed DeVos’ statement in an interview with OUTSET following the Secretary’s speech.
“[Education] needs to go back to the local level. We have to take it out of the hands of the bureaucrats and put it into the hands of teachers, students, administrators,” Livingston said.
Livingston is running on an anti-Common Core platform following the current “re-branding” of Common Core undertaken by current Education Superintendent, Diane Douglas.
“They are exactly the same,” Livingston claimed when discussing the differences between current Common Core standards and Douglas’ new standards. “They are word for word,” she reiterated.
Douglas, a Republican who narrowly defeated her Democrat opponent in 2012, is up for reelection in 2018, and a win may prove to be just as difficult this time around. When asked if she believed Douglas had made any positive accomplishments, she simply said “no.”
Common Core has yet to be stripped entirely from Arizona schools, and Livingston says it’s time for a change.
“We’re in the land of Common Core – full,” she said.
As a public school teacher for 18 years, Livingston believes she has the classroom experience to make that change.
“I will be the vehicle of communication to move everyone forward,” she said.
Her plan begins with rewriting the AzMerit test and improving communication with the Governor’s office as well as every district around the state.
“Everyone thinks changing education is so difficult. What’s difficult is running through the bureaucratic walls,” she said. “I want to run through the walls because that is the only way we are going to put it back in the hands of the parents.”
She criticized Douglas’ large budget proposal saying, “We don’t need more! We need less administrative costs and more to the classroom.” If she does not know where the money is going, Livingston ensured that she will not be asking for more money.
These hard-line conservative streaks are being felt nationwide as policies promoted by Betsy DeVos are quickly spreading and empowering new leaders to fight for them. “Together we can make American education great again,” she headlined on the CPAC stage. “The next generation deserves no less.”
In the crowd was another education activist who is looking to make reforms to the education system in his home school board in Illinois.
Jake Leahy, 17, is possibly the youngest candidate to ever run for the position, and that’s not stopping him.
“The board is completely out of touch with the people,” he said after hearing DeVos speak. “They don’t listen to the students, the parents, and the taxpayers of the district.”
Citing the questions surrounding DeVos’ qualifications, Leahy said:
“They are distracting us from the actual policies at hand. She will bring a new attitude towards school choice to make it so that parents can decide what the future is for their own children, not Washington bureaucrats.”
As a graduate of the Bannockburn School District 106, where he is now running, Leahy says he knows the school board very well.
“My priority is to engage with the people,” he said. Leahy believes that the board needs an independent voice to represent his generation in the decisions being made that will effect his generation.
To those who say he may be too young, he responds that the board already has six people who are well established in careers of their own.
“I can be the one to go in and have an understanding of what’s going on in the school itself,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s my future and my generation’s future – not theirs.”
Leahy finished by proposing his plan:
“Start with local government. Take it and fix it by reducing taxes, having an educational system that is representative of the people. That’s where to start… Make it so [state officials] have to follow in the footsteps of the grassroots.”
As DeVos was wrapping up her speech, she looked into the eyes of many like Livingston and Leahy and claimed that the only way to change the current system is by working together.
“I took this job because I want to return power in education back to where it belongs – with parents, communities, and states. We can do this,” she said. “But only with your help.”