The last thing most students want to talk about in July is school. But huddled in a dark corner of the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria last month — sun shining high in the sky outside — one group of kids couldn't stop talking about it.
At a table in the basement of the building on Capitol Hill, five current students and recent graduates were gathered together by the American Federation for Children to share their experiences in school choice programs.
It didn't take much to get them talking.
Nicholas West, who now attends the University of Alabama, Huntsville, graduated with honors and was voted most likely to succeed by his peers in high school. "The fact that my teachers kept pushing me," West insisted, is why he "just kept going higher and higher" in his classes. After giving a speech on school choice, West said he was scouted by the FBI to become a cyber analyst. He also started a company to provide affordable web design to low-income business owners. "You have people who are trying to break the cycle of poverty and they do that by starting their own business," West explained. "In today's age they can't do that unless they have an online presence."
Walter Blanks, a student at Ohio State University from Columbus, was candid about his troubled childhood. "Growing up was difficult," Blanks recalled, "it seemed as if I was always getting into trouble, misbehaving."
But that all changed after he received a scholarship to a private school through a choice program. "Everything turned around for me after that," he said. "I think the biggest thing that changed was my drive and my motivation."
Blanks remembers sitting on the bench at football practice with his teachers, walking through course assignments in between plays. The recognition that his teachers were taking time after school, away from their personal lives, to help him learn provided an extra boost of motivation. "It would be wrong for me to disregard it," he thought at the time.
Describing the personalized attention he received from educators, Blanks said their approach was, "Let's figure out how Walter learns and suit my teaching style to his learning style." Now, he's one year away from graduating from Ohio State with a degree in journalism. "Whatever I want out of life, I can go and get it," Blanks declared.
Sam Myers, who spent part of the interview with Blanks' arm protectively draped over his shoulders, came to Washington with his mother, Tera, a tireless advocate for choice programs.
"Sam had run into problems at public school, he was being bullied, and the kids in his public neighborhood school realized they could manipulate him," the elder Myers said of her son, who has Down syndrome.
"When I went to the superintendent and to the principal, they told me ‘Well, you're overreacting, and we really don't need to expect very much from his life," she remembered. "And I said ‘You know what, he's in the second grade — how can you determine what is good for his life?'"
Myers went on to describe how she spent the next decade working to advocate for choice programs in order to give Sam a better education. That advocacy, which resulted in the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program from which Sam ultimately benefited, made its way into Betsy DeVos' confirmation hearing earlier this year. The secretary cited her work with Sam and Tera to help clarify her position on students with special needs. DeVos chaired the American Federation for Children before joining the Trump administration.
In an op-ed penned in support of DeVos' nomination, Tera wrote, "I know Betsy DeVos because she came to Ohio and stood shoulder to shoulder with me and other parents of children with special needs to fight for access to better schools."
"While federal law is supposed to protect the rights of disabled children, parents like me know that the system too often fails to live up to its promises," she continued.
Roughly six months later, with DeVos installed at the head of the department just a mile down the road, Myers echoed that sentiment. "It's not about the zip code, it's not about the income, it's not about the background, it's about the child," she told me, adding further, "It's not about party lines, it's not about any of those things."
"If we start realizing how we can move things around and offer parents choice, we can solve the problem of education in our country," Myers believes.
Kenya Green from Milwaukee said she was looking for a school that would push her, "somewhere that had people who believed in me how I didn't believe in myself at the moment," she explained. After failing the entrance exams to the city's top-tier public high schools, Green was able to enroll in Hope Christian High School through a voucher program.
"In high school, I practically lived there. I was there from like 6 in the morning until like 7 at night every day if I didn't have work, just because the teachers there," she recalled. "They're more like a family — they're like mentors, they shape you and they build you."
Green, who most enjoyed her British literature classes, is remarkably well-spoken and eager to share her story. She ended up graduating among the top three people in her class and earned acceptance into 38 colleges, most of which awarded her scholarships. She's now studying communications at Wisconsin Lutheran College.
Looking ahead, Green sees a bright future. With an unmistakable air of certainty, she declared, "I know that I have a bright future ahead of me because of the things that my high school instilled in me and because of the things the choice program allowed me to experience."
"There were people who didn't believe in us because we were just black kids that came from impoverished neighborhoods," Green reflected, getting more and more impassioned as she continued. "But we're in college now, we're gonna finish college, we're going to go on to be something great, we're going to defy the odds of what people expect of us," she pledged.
Jeneffer Lopez was offered a scholarship through a choice program in Washington, D.C., back in 2004 after her single mother saw an ad on a bus. Now she works for Serving Our Children, the nonprofit responsible for facilitating the city's Opportunities Scholarship Program.
Lopez said it "empowered" her "just to be around teachers who wanted to see me succeed." Like the other young people who sat around the table in the Longworth basement, Lopez pointed to the guidance of her teachers as the best part of her experience. "The teachers knew each student's potential and kind of knew where they [could] guide them," she explained.
Lopez won Miss District of Columbia Teen USA in 2010 and went on to graduate from Mount Saint Mary's University with a double major in economics and business in 2014.
The cafeteria in Longworth's basement is populated mostly by Hill staffers in suits and dresses popping in to grab coffee from Dunkin' Donuts before going back to work. In politics, it's easy to forget the people a given policy might affect are, in fact, flesh-and-blood humans, not abstract numbers on a page. Just half a year after DeVos' confirmation hearing, where school choice programs were at the center of a bitter battle, these students confronted Washington head-on, itching to share their stories with anyone who would listen.
Emily Jashinsky is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.