Acceptance of the Barbara K. Olson Woman of Valor Award
as delivered by
United States Secretary of Education
Independent Women's Forum 2019 Annual Awards Dinner
November 13, 2019
Secretary Betsy DeVos:
Thank you, Heather Higgins, for that kind introduction, for your commitment to freedom, for your leadership of this great organization, and for your longtime friendship.
I am deeply humbled by this award, especially because of its namesake.
Barbara Olson was unlike anyone else. Her uncompromised principles, her unmistakable wit, and her unmatched drive made her a unique force for freedom in American public life.
Her husband, Ted, reported that, as her hijacked plane took aim at the Pentagon, her last words in this life were about action.
She asked him through the phone: What can I do?
Barbara was a doer. A risk taker. A fighter. And you know, there's been a lot talk about "gutsy" women these days. Well, Barbara Olson tops that list.
So, I accept this award on behalf of all women of action.
We do what matters. We do what's right. And if someone puts something in our way, we find a way around it… or we just plough right through it.
I think of women like Tera Myers. Tera is mom to Sam, her son who has Down syndrome. Sam was being bullied in school, and wasn't learning like he could. So, Tera set out for something better. The first option worked for a time, until it didn't. The second opportunity looked promising, until it wasn't. They were eligible for that new program, until they weren't.
No matter each obstacle and every hurdle, Tera pressed on. She seized a new opportunity with a new governor and led the fight in Columbus to establish the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program. It empowered her family and nearly 5,000 other students in Ohio like Sam to learn. Nothing can stop a mom on a mission.
As a mom of four and a grandmother of eight, I know what that's like. Being a mother is hard work. It's fulfilling. It's exhilarating. It's also humiliating when you mess up.
I always want the best for my children and I'll still do anything for them. All moms do. There really is no greater job, no greater vocation, no greater calling than to be a parent.
So, I took on another job to fight for America's parents. To fight for their students. And to fight against those in education who would have government be the parent to everyone.
Many in this town seem to think that they are better equipped to make decisions on behalf of parents. They insist government knows best how to educate all children. In that flawed scenario, the state replaces the family, the schoolhouse replaces the home, and the child becomes nothing more than a pawn.
But government is generally not the solution to any problem. It's generally the problem. Government has never made anything better or cheaper, more effective or more efficient. And nowhere is that more true than in education.
So, we are working to dismantle the government social engineering in education, including the previous administration's staggering overreach on Title IX.
You were among the first to sound the alarm decades ago about the downstream unintended consequences of that 1972 law. Since then, we've watched folks in Washington weaponize good intentions to advance their philosophies and their policies.
Well, good intentions alone are not enough. Justice demands humility, prudence, and truth. And the truth is: the so-called "guidance" by the prior administration failed too many students.
Here is what we know happens: a student says he or she was sexually assaulted on campus. If he or she isn't urged to keep quiet or discouraged from reporting it to local law enforcement, the case goes to a school administrator. The accused may or may not be told of the allegations. If there is a hearing, both the accuser and the accused may or may not be allowed legal representation.
Whatever evidence is presented may or may not be shown to all parties. Whatever witnesses—if even allowed to be called—may or may not be cross-examined. And government dictated that schools must use the lowest standard of proof.
And now this campus official—who may or may not have any training in adjudicating sexual misconduct—is expected to render a judgement. A judgement that changes lives.
The right to appeal may or may not be available to either party. And no one is permitted to talk about what went on behind closed doors.
It's no wonder so many call these proceedings "kangaroo courts."
There is no place for sexual misconduct on campus—or anywhere else. These sick acts must never be swept under the rug, and we must always rise to meet the needs of survivors.
But we can't ignore bedrock American principles: justice, due process, and the rule of law.
Our proposed rule recognizes that we can continue to combat sexual misconduct without abandoning due process. It provides a menu of things schools can do to help survivors heal from trauma and continue their education.
At the same time, our proposed rule requires schools to apply basic due process protections.
Some mischaracterize these reforms as tilting the scales of justice, but we believe they simply balance them.
Title IX, we know, has become less about equality and more about engineering. It's become less about students and their learning, and more about students and their speech.
That's borne out in the effort to enforce ambiguous and incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment.
Too many cases involve students and faculty who faced investigation and punishment for only speaking their minds or teaching their classes.
Any perceived offense can become a full-blown Title IX investigation.
But if everything is harassment, then nothing is.
Punishing speech protected by the First Amendment trivializes actual harassment. Harassment codes which trample freedom of speech derail the primary mission of a school—of learning… that is, to pursue truth.
Sadly, students are often told there is no such thing as truth. Acknowledging it means certain feelings or certain ideas could be wrong. Too many institutions of higher learning come down on the wrong side of all that.
I think of the University of Michigan which established a "Bias Response Team." The campus cops had the power to investigate students for incidents of "bias" and hurt feelings at the expense of free speech. And it wasn't until a Circuit Court ordered the Team to be disbanded that the school agreed to never again revive its speech police and un-Constitutional harassment codes.
And although they did eliminate the Bias Response Team, in Ann Arbor alone, the school still employs 76 diversity-related administrators who cost taxpayers and students more than 10 million dollars in compensation every year. They focus on every kind of diversity except a diversity of ideas.
And the University of Michigan isn't alone. More than 200 other colleges and universities still have teams of speech bullies with the power to punish perpetrators of hurt feelings.
Feelings are important, but learning isn't about feelings. It's about thinking. And it's a willingness to engage with any and all ideas—even ones with which you disagree or ones that aren't your own.
This Administration won't let students be silenced. We stand with their right to speak and with their right to learn truth.
Truth can be pursued, and it can be known. Students of all ages need the freedom to seek it.
Abigail Adams said that "Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought…"
Sadly, in this country, for too many students learning is left up to chance.
I think of the parents who want to free their child from a school that's failing them and are sometimes allowed by "the system" to enter a lottery for only a few seats in a different school. Thousands of children vie for limited openings. The students are represented as numbered balls in a cage, as if children and their futures are a bingo game. Their parents are devastated when their child's number isn't called, and they have no power to do anything about it. They are forced to stay in the school that doesn't work.
Is it any wonder then that there are two out of three students in this country who can't read like they should? Two out of three who can't add, subtract, divide, or multiply like they should. Two out of three who do not know—let alone understand—our country's history like they should.
Appallingly, 55 percent of high school seniors have what the researchers call a "below basic" knowledge of American history. In the real world, that means more than half of our young men and women don't know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about; they can't identify that a photo labeled "Berlin 1989" depicts the fall of the Berlin Wall; nor do they understand the significance of those momentous events.
Is it a surprise that today too many young people think they prefer socialism over capitalism?
I recently had a revealing conversation with FBI Director Wray. He told me that many incoming FBI agents are so young, they don't really know what happened on September 11, 2001. "Some people did something," we've heard it said.
Well, we know that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
And doesn't that precisely describe America's antiquated approach to education?
It's past time for something different. It's past time for something better in education. The thing that makes America great: freedom.
The freedom to learn. The freedom to grow. The freedom to rise. The freedom to pursue happiness.
Our Education Freedom Scholarships proposal is so important. I hope you've seen it. It's the conservative, limited government cure for what plagues American education.
It doesn't grow the Federal bureaucracy one tiny bit. It doesn't create a new Federal "Office of School Choice." It doesn't impose any new requirements on states or on families. It doesn't take a single dollar from public school students. It doesn't spend a single dollar of Federal money. And it doesn't entangle schools with Federal strings or stifling red tape.
In fact, it doesn't do any of these things. And that's by design.
The truth is our proposal is a highly efficient and effective way of funding students and their education. It connects dollars to students, not to "the system"—with no bureaucratic sponge soaking up resources in between. I like to picture kids with backpacks representing funding for their education following them wherever they go to learn.
Education Freedom Scholarships will unleash thousands of opportunities and countless not-yet-imagined ways for students to learn. Because an education that works for each student should not be determined by chance nor by government.
Education—how and where students learn—should be determined by students and their families. Because it's about them. It's about developing their abilities and pursuing their aspirations. It's about their futures, and it's ultimately about ours.
Our country's future is secured with freedom. And the defense of it demands constant vigilance.
So, let's return to Barbara Olson's last words to her husband. And, to all of us.
What can we do? What must we do for our families, for our communities, for our country—for freedom?
Thank you all. May God Bless you, and may God continue to bless each and every American student.