Some Bucks County parents had their children returning in-person to school while others were experimenting with online learning. But every parent who attended a roundtable discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in Newtown on Wednesday had the opportunity to make their voices heard.
Broad + Liberty CEO Terry Tracy, and his daughter Caroline, were among the attendees invited to the event. They both spoke with DeVos about the challenges they have faced. Tracy was particularly interested in the possibilities and challenges associated with virtual learning. He also described the current, status quo education system as often “unresponsive to children’s diverse learning needs.” However, Tracy was impressed with the feedback he received from DeVos.
“Covid-19 has only brought to the surface what has been true for some time,” Tracy said in an interview. “Our public school system is not customized to fit the needs of individual students. Families deserve a system that is able to adjust and pivot to contemporary challenges. That’s why we need more school choice and more options that make smart use of new technology, so we are not stuck in the past. But it was encouraging for me and others in attendance to hear how committed the education secretary is to school choice and the need for reform.”
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, announced in April that schools would remain closed for the duration of the 2019-2020 school year in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. His administration has issued “guidance and resources” for local districts to use as they reopen for the current school year.
DeVos heard not just from individual parents, but also from young students who are trying to compensate for lost time in the classroom.
“Listening to their stories, what they’re most struggling with and what they’re most frustrated with as, in regards to their kids going back to school, or in some cases, not going back, and really standing with them. We can do better for kids,” DeVos said in an interview with CBS Philly.
This is not the first time President Trump’s education secretary has visited Pennsylvania to champion school choice. DeVos visited Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School almost exactly one year ago last September to highlight Pennsylvania’s contributions to school choice initiatives.
Former Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, who fought to expand the Education Improvement Tax Credit program, was a host for the event. The EITC, and a companion program, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, award tens of thousands of scholarships to needy students on an annual basis.
During her Newtown visit, DeVos called attention to pending federal legislation that would “lend more support to families around the country struggling with educational needs,” according to CBS.
DeVos also said Covid-19 “created a real opening and a need” for K-12 education to become “more flexible, more nimble, and much more customized to each kid’s needs and that’s best determined by families and by parents.”
Tracy seized on these points and expressed his “strong hope” that school initiatives that have taken root in Pennsylvania like the EITC and OSTC can be expanded and “inspire reform efforts across stateliness.” Tracy also supports a new proposal in Harrisburg that would offer $1,000 education scholarship accounts to families earning less than $40,000 to help them pay for unexpected at-home learning costs like high-speed internet, curriculum, and tutoring, or private school tuition. The legislation is designed to get students back on track after the effects of school shutdowns.
“Suddenly, everyone understands that value of online and virtual learning,” he observed. “But not every public school was well-equipped to handle this current crisis. Many charter schools, and most especially the cyber charters, were able to make the adjustments. The big takeaway from the meeting with DeVos is that many parents felt trapped in their current situation. I’m glad she’s listening. But are Pennsylvania policymakers listening?”
Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. He also writes for several national publications based in Washington, D.C.