10:57 A.M. CDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you very much, Todd. Thank you for the warm welcome. Thank you for your great leadership as the Superintendent of the School District of Waukesha. And I know we are just a few days away from your retirement after 36 years in education, so I wanted to invite everybody to join me in thanking you not just for hosting us today, but for a lifetime in education and the difference that you’ve made here in Wisconsin. Thank you so much. (Applause.)
It really is an honor to be with you. Thank you for those thoughtful comments about the value of school choice — public and private school choice — here across Wisconsin. I’m looking forward to a conversation that has been going on in this state now for some 30 years. Wisconsin has been in the forefront of empowering parents with the right to choose whatever school they want their children to attend, whether that’s a public school, a public charter school, a private, or a religious school.
And I want to — I just want to congratulate all of the members of the panel here today who have been so involved in that effort. And we had a memorable day at your state house earlier this year. It seems like a very long time ago to me, but I saw the enthusiasm. I met with families and children that have benefitted by the opportunity to make that choice as a family. And I see some bright young people and some families who are with us today, and I just want to extend my congratulations to each and every one of you.
I also want to extend greetings from a great champion of giving parents the right to choose where their children go to school: the 45th President of the United States of America. I told him I was on my way to Wisconsin today, and I think he sounded just a little bit jealous. (Laughter.) He loves this state, he loves this issue, and I know he’d want me to extend his greetings.
But I will also tell you that, when the President and I went looking for someone to lead the Department of Education who would understand the value of empowering parents in this country, we needed to look no further than Betsy DeVos, who has done an incredible job as the Secretary of Education. And thank you for being here. Thanks, Betsy, for all you’ve done for America’s children and families. (Applause.)
I’m also pleased to be with another member of the administration’s team. I am sure you have already recognized her from her many appearances on television. She is an assistant to the President, a senior advisor. But this — I’ve known her for more than 30 years, and she’s also been a great champion of empowering parents with the right to choose where their children go to school. Kellyanne Conway, thank you for being here. Thank you for being (inaudible) with families as well. (Applause.)
And to members of the Board of Education of the School District of Waukesha, thank for the hospitality. I know Tammy Olivas is going to lead a conversation in just a few minutes, but thank you for the work you’ve done at Hispanics for School Choice and the Director of Outreach. I also want to thank Jim Bender, the president of School Choice Wisconsin; James Sebert, who is the incoming superintendent with the unenviable task of following you in that role. And also the — I just met the principal of the Waukesha STEM Academy, where we’re gathering — a place with a great reputation. James Murray, thank you. Thank you for the hospitality today, for opening up this great facility.
You know, it was 30 years ago, with Governor Tommy Thompson that that Wisconsin made history and established the very first school choice program in America. My friend Governor Scott Walker built on that progress. He expanded the program statewide. And today, in that program alone, I’m informed that more than 43,000 students are able to attend the school of their choice.
And in that spirit, I also want to extend gratitude to the Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who is with us here today. Thank you very much, Leader. Thanks for your support for Wisconsin families’ right to choose where their children go to school. (Applause.) Good to see you again.
You know, I can honestly say: For my part, I was for school choice before it was cool. (Laughter.) It would be in the early 90s, looking on at what Wisconsin was doing and the groundbreaking work in this great state that I gave voice to that aspiration in Indiana. And I’m proud to say, when I became governor of Indiana, we were able to have more than — I believe, more than double the enrollment in our school choice program in the Hoosier State.
And I can honestly tell you that, in one of the very first conversations President Trump and I had when he was considering me for this role, now four years ago, was on this topic. And the President was a great admirer of Wisconsin’s leadership in this space, what Indiana had done. And it — and I know it was one of the — one of the very first issues that we had very strong agreement on early on and have worked on ever since.
I’m proud to report: Since the first days of our administration, we’ve worked to expand opportunities for families. The President, in the first few months in office, authorized the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program. It is the only federally funded voucher program in the country. We’ve more than — more than increased enrollment there by 50 percent. We also changed the tax laws in this country, so that now parents can use their college savings accounts to send their kids to a quality school at every level of education.
But as we speak — and the Secretary may elaborate on this in a few moments — we’re working on a new program that would make more than $5 billion available across the country in the form of Education Freedom Scholarships. We want to — we want to make it possible to empower parents to be able to make that choice: where their children go to school.
For my part, I am the product of private education and public education, and I cherish both, just like every American does. I went to Catholic grade school for eight years — St. Columba Catholic School. But then I went to a public high school. I went to a private college, and then I went to a public university for graduate school.
And one of the things that — that Superintendent Gray and I were speaking about is: A conviction the President and I have is that — that empowering parents to choose where their children go to school doesn’t simply make better education available for those families; we believe that competition makes everybody better. It’s one of the things that Superintendent Gray and I reflected on just before I came out. In fact, you’ve seen evidence of that here in Wisconsin, where not only have — have we seen students in the parental choice program scoring higher on ACT tests, children from particularly underserved communities having a higher graduation rate across the state, but also, you’ve seen — you’ve seen higher performance in public schools.
It’s — you know, the Bible says, “iron sharpens iron,” and so one person sharpens another. And I truly do believe, as the President does and as Wisconsin has demonstrated every day, that by empowering parents to choose where their children go to school, we’re inviting excellence all across education, and you’re certainly seeing that.
There’s a couple of great students here that I wanted to give a shoutout to, and then I’m going to turn it over to Tammy, just because we’ve got some incredible kids in the audience.
There’s a Waukesha Academy of Health student. She’s a junior, I’m told, who teamed up with United Way in the midst of the challenging time through which we just passed, and she made 700 masks in just four days and prepared bagged lunches for local families in need. Her dad is actually a retired FBI agent, and they just demonstrated just a great commitment to the community. And I was inspired to hear she — Jessica Felske and her dad, Jack Felske, where are you both? Are you out here somewhere? Would you mind standing up and taking a bow? Thank you. Jessica, great job. (Applause.) Really a great job.
Another one of the great students who are here, who’ve — who’ve demonstrated great character in and out of the classroom, is a sixth grader at Horning Middle School. I’m told he learned how to sew in summer school a few years ago, so he worked with his grandmother to sell his own creations at a local crafts fair. But when — when he heard from his aunt, who is a nurse at a children’s hospital in Iowa, that they needed more masks, he didn’t wait to be asked; he started making and donating them himself. And it’s — he was already an inspiring person. He was actually diagnosed with cancer in kindergarten, but I’m so grateful to hear that he’s been cancer-free for six years. He’s out there making a difference — making a difference in this state, in Iowa, and inspiring the country. Where is Collin Anderson? Collin, are you here? Stand up and take a bow, young man. Well done. (Applause.) Great job, Collin. Proud of you.
Well, you know it’s — it’s no surprise that support for educational choice for families is growing all across America. Since 2011, the number of Wisconsin schools and students participating in the Parental Choice Program has doubled. Last year alone, I’m told it increased by 37 percent. And now one in eight Wisconsin students are educated with public funds at the school of their choice.
We really believe school choice is an idea whose time has come. And I particularly believe that — that every parent should be able to choose where their kids go to school — goes to school goes to school, regardless of their area code or income.
And I just want to say thank you to everyone that’s gathered here. I look forward to the updates on Wisconsin’s progress in advancing parental choice in this state. But just know that you’ve been — you’ve been opening doors of opportunity for these great young people. You’ve been opening — opening pathways for prosperity, particularly to families that would not otherwise have the means to make those choices.
And so on behalf of President and on behalf of our entire team and a grateful nation, I just want to say thank you, Wisconsin. Thank you for your example. And I look very much forward to our discussion today. Thank you all.
(The roundtable discussion commences.)
(The roundtable discussion concludes.)
Well, and my first request would be to give Tammy a round of applause. I think you can — (applause). When I walked up to her, she said, “I hope I’m able to run a good discussion.” And I thought this was very insightful. Thank you.
And thank you for the thoughtful, candid, and inspiring range of perspectives that we’ve heard today. And to — again, to Todd Gray, it’s — I mean, to hear that you heard a virtual school already explains a lot about the way that Waukesha was able to respond during this challenging time. And I want to commend you for that.
But I also — I also want to express appreciation. When we talked before the event, you said you’d like to speak about the value of choice within the public school system and the charter system. And we had an immediate meeting of minds. This is — we really do believe that the principle here is empowering parents to choose whatever school they believe — like some of the parents here who are making decisions now — that they believe is most right for them, whether it’s a public school, a private school, or religious school.
And so thank you for being — thank you for being a champion of that principle and speaking so clearly today.
I want to thank Chris Lawrence. Thank you for your leadership. Apparently, I’m not able to come to Wisconsin without seeing you — (laughter) — so I look forward to seeing you next time. More importantly, thanks for your leadership. I can tell you’re a great dad, and you’ve been a great champion for a lot of families that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunities that they would have. And Wisconsin has been leading the nation, and you’ve been a part of that.
I want to thank the Secretary of Education. She is as tenacious an advocate of education as I have ever met in my life. And I can tell you that I know that Secretary DeVos is going to go back with renewed energy, with the words that we’ve heard today. And we’re going to work hard on the Freedom Scholarship to be able to expand across the country what you’ve been able to do here.
And to Alyssa, thanks. Thanks for giving us the perspective of a great mom. All of our kids are out of the house, and my youngest just finished graduate school, but it’s been a challenging time for parents. And thank you for — thank you for bringing that to this conversation so clearly, and thanks for reminding us that the moms and dads who all became educators, in part, in the last in the last several months are all heroes. And so thank you again for your great words today and your great insights. It’s really been inspiring.
And — and I must tell you to — I will say Principal Howard — Trenae, thanks. Thanks for the way that you, your vice principal, and your whole team obviously leaned into this effort. It’s in the highest and best tradition of education in the state. And I can tell your students, as well as those kids of your own, are blessed — are blessed. So thank you for bringing that perspective.
And I’m intentionally — well, I did want to say to Kellyanne Conway that the forgotten child, I think, is — I’m going to take that back from here. This is a President who, when the people of Wisconsin said yes to this President four years ago, we spoke about the forgotten men and women in this country. But I know this President, and I know his heart, and I know he was talking about the kids. And so thanks for that. And thanks for the good insights that you shared.
It really is — it really is about that. We want to expand opportunities not because of some political objective or ideological aim. It’s about — it’s about simply empowering parents so that there are no forgotten children, there are no — there is no futures lost. And that was especially well said, Kellyanne.
And finally, I just want to say: Calvin Lee, I hope you’re right. We’ve passed through such an extraordinary time as a nation. I mean, the faith and the resilience and the character of the people of Wisconsin and the people of America has just shown forth. And every day, I mean, Wisconsin has made extraordinary progress in combating the coronavirus. And every day, we’re one day closer to putting it in the past.
But I — I’m very challenged by your suggestion that — that there might be, in this, a reinvigoration — as every parent became an educator, in part, and had to make choices in the way they use their own time and the way they became engaged.
Because that’s one of the great things about school choice, I’ve always observed, is that it has the effect of reminding parents that they’re the most important person in their child’s life, and that their decisions and their choices in the best interests of the kid are the best guiding principle.
And so I’m really struck by your comment that maybe this challenging time through which we’ve passed has reinvigorated that principle in parents around the country who have seen that they were able to see their way through this challenging time, to help their children continue to excel, continue to learn. And maybe that can translate into expanding more choices — more public choices; more public charter choices; more innovation, like at this great STEM Academy that we’re gathered at; and more opportunities to choose even private and religious schools.
So it’s — it’s through great adversity sometimes comes opportunity, and maybe we’ll look for that in places all across this country. But I thank you. That’s a very fresh thought for me about this. And I appreciate the insight, Calvin.
Lastly, I just want to say thank you — thank you to everyone here. We’ve got education leaders. We’ve got teachers all over here. We’ve got some great kids. I want to thank Jessica Felske and Collin Anderson again for also representing all these other great kids. I hope to have a chance to say hi to you before I slip away.
So thank you all very much, and God bless you. God bless Wisconsin. (Applause.)