A few weeks ago I wrote a blog expressing my exasperation with my children’s public school education and my attraction to school vouchers. To my surprise, United States Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke about that blog in a speech, and her staff later invited me to the Department of Education (DOE) to meet and talk about schools. It was an on-the-record discussion, and I wrote about it too. Then last Wednesday, I had an exclusive, eye-opening conversation with the secretary. DeVos called me on my cell phone from a restricted line at precisely 10:00 a.m. To help me relax and talk to her straight, I decided to stay in bed and take the call wearing my fuzzy pajamas with my night scarf still on. (Whatever works, right?) The call was arranged just 24 hours earlier, so overnight I had reached out to a core group of family and friends to ask them to pray for me to have wisdom and to also send me questions for her. It was my duty, I felt, to voice the needs of my community—low- and middle-income African-American families—to the most powerful person in public education. What surprised me was that DeVos seemed to have called not to talk, but to listen. Our 30-minute call turned into an hour, and she didn’t seem to mind. She was gracious, granting me on-the-record permission to blog about our conversation even though I admitted that I hadn’t taken many notes or recorded the phone call.

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Here’s a paraphrasing of part of our discussion: DeVos: Do you think empowering parents to choose what schools to send their children to would change the dynamics of schooling? Me: Yes. Schools need to work for students, not the other way around. That said, there must be some safeguards in place to ensure that the school choices are high quality, otherwise we’ll have a situation like in Detroit where most of the school choices are bad. DeVos: How would you fashion a way to ensure quality? Me: That’s a real complex issue. Standardized testing cannot be the only way. Balance is key. Parent, teacher and student surveys are telling, and those survey results should be published on every school for public consumption. There should also be some basic accountability for schools that accept the vouchers and the parents who use them. For example, the U.S. Department of Education could say, “To accept a voucher, schools cannot have more than 25 children in one classroom.” And then some accountability for parents: “To use this voucher, you must attend at least two parent conferences per year, and your child must have at least 95 percent attendance.” We must balance school choice with some basic quality-control accountability—for schools and for parents. DeVos: I can see the wisdom in your answer, Marilyn, but I visited a school in Texas that has 35-45 kids in a classroom with combined grades 1-6 and then 7-12; there are no teachers in the classroom; the kids decide what they want to learn and they teach themselves and hold each other accountable. It was really quite remarkable. I would be concerned that establishing blanket rules could hinder innovation. Me: There is always that chance that accountability can stifle innovation, but when we consider the many millions of students that we have to serve, models like the one in Texas can go really bad if reproduced in mass without accountability. A school voucher system is revolutionary—and I think public education is overdue for a revolution—but in most mainstream revolutions Black people and poor people always seem to end up on the losing end. So it’s important that there are provisions to protect them in a free-market system, so those who just wish to profit off of poor children are weeded out. Otherwise, low-income parents will look around their communities and ask, “If I leave this school, where am I going to go? All my choices are bad.”

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I suggested that DeVos take her policy team through the design thinking process to fully explore and prototype what a viable, fair school voucher system could look like. I also suggested that she include a diverse group of parents, students, teachers and community members from around the country to join in. The more input she gets from the public, the better and more well-received her new system would be. The conversation also gave space for me to tell DeVos about my 74-year-old mother who, after raising eight of her own children,  adopted my three younger brothers (now 21, 18 and 15) at birth from the foster care system. As a retired certified nursing assistant on a fixed income, my mom bounced her sons from school to school in hopes of finding one that would meet their needs. At one point, she scraped together all the extra little money she had to put them in Catholic School. She could only afford to do it for one year, and that high-quality Catholic school closed two years later due to low enrollment. My brothers ended up at three different public schools that ranged in quality. The moral of that story was that parents who are low-income still value education, and they would make wise school choices if empowered with the knowledge, access and funds to do so. [pullquote position=”right”]I found DeVos to be humble, reflective and probing[/pullquote]—not at all like the elitist sinister billionaire she is often portrayed to be on TV. She hadn’t heard about my nonpartisan nonprofit Teachers Who Pray, and when I mentioned it she immediately looked it up online. I know some people criticize her for being a devout Christian, but I’ve always seen her faith as an asset. As a born-again believer myself, I can hold DeVos accountable for drafting education policies that are virtuous, protecting the poor (i.e. rural white students), the widows (i.e. modern-day single mothers) and the oppressed (i.e. urban children of color)—just as the Bible mandates. I told her that I have been praying for her since her confirmation hearings and until she mentioned me in her keynote speech last week, I’d never felt led to blog about her—only pray. I ended the conversation by telling DeVos that I had been really nervous about talking to her, but once I resolved to go with God and leave politics out of it, my fears went away. I invited her to call me on my personal cell phone whenever she might like (and I would always respect her wishes to be on or off the record.) I told her how honored I was to speak to her, to have literally spoken truth to power, as she is a woman with tremendous power. DeVos replied, “Let me turn that back around on you, Marilyn. I’m honored to have spoken to you because your voice is incredibly powerful. You and your blog have impacted me and I thank you for that.” I hung up the phone and raised my hands in praise. Thank you, Lord, for using me to speak the truth to power…in power. And please lead, guide, and direct me and Sec. Betsy DeVos.