DeVos on Mackinac: ‘Washington knows best’ is over

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Mackinac Island — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Friday attacked Obama-era education policies, promising to end “inefficient and ineffective” federal mandates while continuing her decades-long crusade for school choice.

“The time of ‘Washington knows best’ is over,” DeVos said in a keynote address at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. “This approach didn’t work, it has not worked and it will never work. President Trump and I know our jobs: It’s to get out of the way.”

DeVos, a Michigan native tapped for the national education post by President Donald Trump, defended her controversial decision to freeze a “Borrower Defense to Repayment” rule designed to protect students from predatory for-profit colleges.

Democratic attorneys general in 18 states and the District of Columbia in July sued DeVos over the decision, but the rule was “rushed” through without congressional review and could have cost the federal government up to $17 billion, she said.

“While students should have protections from predatory practices, schools and taxpayers should also be treated fairly as well,” she said. “Under the previous rules, all one had to do was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.”

Similary, DeVos doubled down on her decision to rescind and eventually replace an Obama-era guidance for investigating sexual misconduct allegations on college campuses, saying that while sexual assault is “horrible and lamentable,” the rule did not work for students or schools.

A fierce school choice advocate, DeVos used the her Mackinac speech to outline her broad vision for an educational overhaul that would ensure all students have access to a high-quality school, whether it be a traditional public, charter or private school.

“Providing more education options isn’t against public schools, it’s actually not against anything,” she said. “School choice is about recognizing parents’ inherent rights to choose what is best for their children.”

DeVos has become a lightning rod for public school advocates and union groups who fear her policies will siphon children from traditional public schools and ultimately undermine them.

“She’s loved by everyone, except the teachers unions,” Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said as he introduced DeVos.

DeVos recounted a recent Twitter spat she had with the American Federation of Teachers union, which criticized her statement that public money should be invested in individual students.

“NO we should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids,” the union said in a tweet, later adding “education isn’t an individual privilege, it’s a right for all.”

“I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but I have to admire their candor,” DeVos said. “They made it clear they care more about a system — one that was created in the 1800s based on a model from a country that no longer exists — than they care about individual students.”

“They are saying that education is not an investment in students, and they are totally wrong.”

The 2017 confab was a homecoming celebration of sorts for DeVos and Republican National Committeewoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, who led the state party in the 2016 election cycle and now splits her time between Michigan and Washington D.C.

“We did it! We did it!” Romney McDaniel said to cheers as she opened her keynote address by basking in the glow of an unexpectedly successful election season.

“As chairwoman of the Republican National Committee — which by the way, it sometimes blows my mind saying that — I can tell you we are better positioned as a committee and party than ever before,” she said. “We have the White House, we have a majority in the Senate, a majority in Congress, we have the Supreme Court and 34 governorships across this great nation.”

Romney McDaniel praised Gov. Rick Snyder for economic gains made under his tenure, telling Republican activists who have sometimes clashed with Snyder that “we are better off in Michigan because we have a governor who put people above politics.”

She also heaped praise on Trump, saying he’s focused on putting America first and noting his support for infrastructure projects like the QLine passenger rail system in Detroit and the long-stalled Soo Locks modernization project in the Upper Peninsula.

Romney McDaniel did not mention the rancorous and ongoing health care debate in Washington, D.C., where Senate Republicans appear unlikely to pass a health care overhaul bill Trump has been pushing for.

Seeing Michiganians like DeVos and Romney McDaniel playing key roles in the Trump administration and national party is “beyond incredible,” said former state party deputy chair Jeff Sakwa.

“You think of Washington D.C. being like the major leagues, well we’ve got too great people there in two very important positions, and we raised them right here,” he said. “I’m just awestruck.”