WASHINGTON — Betsy DeVos, the U.S. secretary of Education, is calling for “a paradigm shift” and a “fundamental reorientation” of the way Americans think of school and the federal government’s role in the nation’s educational system.

“Equal access to a quality education should be a right for every American, and every parent should have the right to choose how their child is educated. Government exists to protect those rights, not usurp them,” DeVos said in a Jan. 16 speech to the American Enterprise Institute.

DeVos characterized federal efforts over the last 20 years to improve learning — centered on the Obama-era Common Core program — and to hold public schools accountable — through the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind legislation — as a pair of top-down bureaucratic failures. Consequently, she proposed to “shift power over classrooms from Washington back to teachers who know their students well.”

Analyzed through a Catholic lens, the secretary of education’s remarks on educating at the local level and the right of parents to determine their children’s education aligns with Church teaching that parents are the primary educators of their children and that society should support families in that role.

“The federal government can be a great support for the states, and the states themselves have a role. … But neither of them should supplant and take the place of the role that the parent has in the child’s education and the ability to choose the education that the parent knows is best for their child,” said Dominican Sister Mary Fleming, the executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education.

Sister Mary told the Register that there is “a huge conversation going on in the country right now” on educational policy, the role of the federal and state governments and how best to empower parents at the local level.

Also part of that discussion is the principle that parents should have more educational choices than just the conventional public-school system.

“We’re very much for the plurality that parental choice in education is supporting,” Sister Mary said.

DeVos, a longtime supporter of the school-choice movement, told her audience last month that choice in education is bigger than “when a student picks a different classroom in this building or that building” or uses vouchers and tax-credit scholarships to attend private schools.

Said DeVos, “It’s freedom to find the best way to learn and grow … to find the exciting and engaging combination that unlocks individual potential.”


Providing Options

Presentation Sister Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and educational research for the National Catholic Educational Association, told the Register that every child deserves a quality education, and programs such as tax-credit scholarships that help families afford Catholic and private schools should be encouraged.

“It’s very hard for parents who are struggling to get by, who can’t move into a better school district, to really provide for their children,” Sister Dale said. “Children should not be punished for their parents’ struggles in terms of the kind of education they can receive.”

In urban dioceses across the country, Sister Dale noted that Catholic schools in the inner cities are often the best option for families, many of whom are not Catholic but who depend on those schools to educate their children.

“We are working hard to keep those schools open to serve those kids who have no other chance,” Sister Dale said.

As articulated by popes and bishops, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council and several other Church documents, official Church teaching has repeatedly and consistently affirmed the importance of school choice. In Paragraph 2229, the Catechism states that parents have the “fundamental right” to “choose a school for them which corresponds to their own personal convictions” and that public authorities “have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and ensuring concrete conditions for its exercise.”


Empowering Parents

Sister Mary Fleming referenced the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, which affirmed parents, “who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children, must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.” The declaration asserted that public subsidies should be made available so that parents are truly free to choose their children’s education.

“Part of this whole conversation on education has also been about a monolithic public-school stamp. The Church has never supported that,” said Sister Mary, who noted that the bishops’ conference partners with organizations such as the Council for American Private Education to advocate for plurality in education.

Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, told the Register that empowering parents, preserving pluralism and providing kids with a promising future is why his organization supports the right of parents to choose their children’s school.

“We believe parents are the child’s primary educators,” McTighe said. “They know the child best; they love the child most, and they are in the best possible position to make decisions about the education of their children. School choice empowers parents.”

Zeus Rodriguez, president of the board of directors for Hispanics for School Choice, told the Register that federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind have largely failed “simply because no two children learn the same way, and families have different benchmarks for what success looks like.”

Rodriguez said many state and local governments have made “significant progress” in providing more school options for parents to choose from, but added that “we are a long away from where we need to be.”

Said Rodriguez, “Congress and the Trump administration have the obligation to protect the rights of parents as the primary educators and not allow religious freedom, again, specifically as it relates to educating children, to be usurped by state or local governments.” 


The Role of Government

The emphasis on parental rights, however, does not mean that government has no role in setting educational policy and standards. Gravissimum Educationis said it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that teachers are well-trained and that schools look after the health of students and in general “promote the whole school subject” while keeping in mind the principle of subsidiarity.

“The federal government plays a specific role in supporting the states in being able to educate its citizenry,” said Sister Mary, adding that the federal government historically has not had a central role in educating the nation’s children.

But over the last 20 years, in Democratic and Republican presidential administrations, the nation has seen vigorous federal efforts to reform public education in the United States.

In 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, which was intended to hold schools accountable in part by relying on standardized test results.

During President Barack Obama’s administration, the federal government championed the Common Core State Standards, which had the goal to ensure that students everywhere in the country were receiving the same high level of instruction.

In her Jan. 19 speech, DeVos said Common Core was “dead” at the U.S. Department of Education, adding that the federal education reform efforts “have not worked as hoped.”

“The purpose of today’s conversation is to look at the past with 20/20 hindsight, examine what we have done and where it has — or hasn’t — led us,” said DeVos, who added that the “Every Student Succeeds Act” charts a “path in a new direction.”

Passed into law in December 2015, the “Every Student Succeeds Act” replaced the “No Child Left Behind Act.” The law narrowed the federal government’s role in elementary and secondary education, shifting the federal school accountability provisions to the states.

“Whenever the federal government becomes more involved in education, there’s a tension that will develop,” Sister Mary said. “In this country we go back and forth on the role of the federal government and the role of education at the state level.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.