POLITICS
05/23/2017 06:59 pm ET

Betsy DeVos Compares School Choice Critics To ‘Flat-Earthers’

The education secretary accuses critics of hindering innovation, then calls Trump's budget, which would cut education 13 percent, a "historic investment" in students.

Opponents of school choice policies are akin to “flat-earthers” who are fighting innovation in education, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Monday night.

DeVos gave a speech praising President Donald Trump’s plans for the “most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history ― a day before his administration released a budget proposal that would slash Education Department funding by more than $9 billion.   

“The time has expired for ‘reform.’ We need a transformation ― a transformation that will open up America’s closed and antiquated education system,” DeVos said at the American Federation for Children’s annual National Policy Summit in Indianapolis. “Defenders of our current system have been regularly resistant to any meaningful change. In resisting, these ‘flat-earthers’ have chilled creativity and stopped American kids from competing at the highest levels.”

DeVos chaired the AFC, which advocates for school choice, before Trump nominated her to lead the Department of Education. She also suggested that refusal to embrace school choice was like hanging on to your flip phone in the age of smartphones and said that she wanted to “drag American education out of the Stone Age.”

DeVos likely used the term “flat-earthers” to refer to people who believe in an outdated, discredited theory, but she has faced criticism for her support of religious education, which in some institutions undermines scientific theory. She has made significant donations to a Michigan private school that taught creationism alongside evolution in science classes and has served on its board. 

A billionaire who has long been involved in education advocacy, DeVos has pushed for school choice and reforms that would benefit parochial and private schools.

School choice policies include expanding charter schools and voucher programs that let students use the public dollars allocated for their schooling to enroll in different districts or in charter or private schools. DeVos believes these policies give kids more opportunities and access to better schools. Critics see school choice as kneecapping public education, particularly poorer school districts and their students.

Trump’s 2018 budget, released Tuesday, calls for a 13 percent decrease in funding for the Education Department and major changes to student loan programs.

For K-12 education, it would actually increase funding for school choice initiatives, adding $1 billion in grants for school districts, $167 million for a charter school program and $250 million for a program that gives low-income families scholarships for private and parochial schools.

The cuts will hit various programs that enjoy broad bipartisan support, The Atlantic noted, including state grants for career and technical education and the federal work-study program. A $2.3 billion program that supports professional development and class-size reduction would be eliminated, as would $1.2 billion in grants for after-school and summer school programs used by nearly 2 million students.  

DeVos said in a statement that the budget “makes an historic investment in America’s students” and gives states and parents more decision-making power. 

She explained away the cuts as “tough choices we have had to make when assessing the best use of taxpayer money” and said the administration is “taking a hard look at programs that sound nice but simply haven’t yielded the desired outcomes.”

The budget is only a proposal and needs approval by Congress, where it will face steep opposition. But the potential cuts have appalled education advocates.

The “shortsighted and cruel proposal” is “an assault on the American Dream,” said John King, president of the Education Trust and former education secretary under President Barack Obama.

It “would make the climb to success much steeper for all our young people, especially students of color and students from low-income families,” King said.

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