Thank you, Chairman McKee for that kind introduction. And thank each of you for the hard work you do on behalf of your states.

I’m glad to see you all made it despite the snow. I’m getting used to the weather here in Washington, but I must say, by Michigan standards, this could be considered a balmy March day!

Before we delve into policy, I wanted to tell you a bit about myself. …

For me, these experiences have combined to form my views:

I believe in kids; I trust parents; I trust teachers; and I want to empower state and local leaders to do what’s right for the children they serve.

I believe any student can grow and thrive if given the chance to receive a quality education.

For me, this is just common sense.

My views have been shaped by my work in Michigan and in states across the country, just as each of yours have been formed through the lens of your own state. You deal with the challenges facing your state every day. You know the unique needs of your economy and your citizens.

That’s what makes you – state leaders – so well equipped to solve these problems.

Federalism isn’t an antiquated idea. Our nation’s founders reserved most powers, including education, for the states to exercise because they knew all too well that a distant central government cannot adequately address the needs of its people.

I share the founders’ belief that those closest to problems usually know best how to solve them.

We want to empower the states, the “labs of democracy,” to innovate and solve the tough challenges they confront.

That’s precisely the idea behind the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and it’s why I’m a strong proponent of this bipartisan law.

As you’ve likely heard, this week we reiterated that the Department of Education will implement ESSA as Congress intended — by doing what’s best for children. We’re rolling back the intrusive involvement of the federal government while restoring the freedom and flexibility state and local leaders deserve.

No two states are identical. You know this better than anyone. The problems facing Rhode Island are different than those of South Dakota or California. We shouldn’t insist the same solution will work everywhere, every time.

Each of your states will submit state ESSA plans, and I expect each of them to be quite different.

And they should be. The plans should reflect the diversity of the states you serve and the unique challenges and opportunities they face.

I don’t want Washington to smother your innovation. You should be able to unleash your creative thinking to set children up for success. You should compete – with each other, and with every other country in the world – to find the best ways to deliver an excellent education to every child in your state.

That’s what ESSA sets up the freedom to do, but more importantly, it’s what the parents in your state expect you to do. Politicians can be blamed for many things, but I don’t believe anyone will ever fault you for trying too hard to make sure every child has an equal opportunity for a great education.

For me, this starts by ensuring parents have the right to choose the educational setting that’s best for their child.

Many of you share this belief. In fact, most of the states represented here today have school choice programs. The longest-running program in the country, Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, is located in Lt. Gov. Kleefisch’s state of Wisconsin.

That program started in 1990, and is now one of four private choice programs in Wisconsin, serving more than 33,000 students in that state. If you add to that the population attending the state’s public charter schools, more than 76,000 students in Wisconsin are able to attend a school of their parents’ choosing.

One of these schools is St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee, which serves almost exclusively students from low-income families.

One of those students, Jeffrey, described his education experience prior to attending St. Marcus as “setting him up to fail.” His traditional schools simply didn’t meet his academic needs.

When he enrolled at St. Marcus everything changed for him.

Jeffrey’s teachers took special interest in him, and today he’s a college graduate and works as an architectural designer. And he credits his success to the support of his family and his teachers at St. Marcus.

This is but one example of why we must do everything in our power to allow every child – every child – to have access to a safe and nurturing learning environment where he or she is able to grow and thrive. Choice has given Wisconsin’s students a chance to succeed that would not have otherwise been available to them without the state’s choice program.

As state leaders, you intimately recognize the innate ability a quality education can have to break the cycle of poverty, and you understand the value of an educated workforce.

Education is the pathway to bring our economy into the 21st century. The current reality, however, is that too many high-paying, skills-based jobs remain vacant, and the general trend of entrepreneurship and new startups has been very slow to recover since the end of the Great Recession.

The unemployment rate may be down, but research shows that a historically high number of able-bodied men – nearly one in eight – are unemployed or no longer looking for work.

The jobs exist. We just need to connect those willing to learn the requisite skills with the businesses ready to hire them.

And we need to foster a new generation of entrepreneurs, inventors and job creators who will unleash their ingenuity to solve the challenges of the day.

This development starts in grade school with hands-on, experiential learning and continues by encouraging students to explore different postsecondary education paths. The menu of options is long and varied, but too often, young people are only aware of, or pushed toward, four-year colleges or universities.

We should break the stigma that career education options are not valid paths to learning and success. One of the options is community colleges, an essential engine of workforce and economic development — both locally and regionally. Effective community colleges help identify and close the skills gap between employers and job-seekers.

And, even better: community colleges don’t demand students adhere to the school’s schedule – they adjust to the needs of the student instead. From employees who seek new skills and credentials to further their careers, to students who need some extra help preparing to do further college-level work, community colleges are often a great fit. We should empower and encourage schools that are student-centric.

Of course, many of you have already taken the lead in promoting workforce development programs that fit the economic needs of your state.

In my home state of Michigan, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley joined forces with state Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein to level the playing field for a group that’s consistently underrepresented in the overall workforce: people with disabilities.

The initiative, MI Hidden Talent, provides training and resources to help businesses adopt inclusive hiring practices.

The cause is personal for Brian, whose daughter, Reagan, is autistic. He knows firsthand the immense value and diverse perspectives that individuals with differing abilities can bring to the table.

In Rhode Island, your chairman, Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee, has championed expanding school options both as a mayor and now as lieutenant governor. I appreciate your leadership on this issue and thank you for promoting these reforms.

States have led the way in improving education. This is why the Trump administration has committed to return power to the states wherever and whenever possible.

Under my leadership, the U.S. Department of Education will do everything in its power to support students’ growth and achievement. We must not get in the way of creative thinking and any action that promises positive results for kids. We want to give you as state leaders the latitude to develop talent and improve outcomes.

Make no mistake: This is a clear opportunity for you and your states. You have the power to chart a course that will benefit the families in your state for decades to come.

So I want to challenge you to pursue what some would call impossible. Remember that, not so long ago, putting a man on the moon and a computer in every home were unthinkable ideas.

And an even shorter time ago, ordering and having almost anything promptly delivered with the click of a button on one’s phone, and getting into a self-driving vehicle, were thought to be impossible.

We owe it to the rising generation to always encourage and cultivate its ability to thrive academically, and expand its access to new and innovative ways to learn.

It is possible for every child to have an equal opportunity for a great education. We just need the will to make it happen. And I believe, with your help, we will rise to the challenge.

Thank you again for all that you do, and for your commitment to the states and the people you serve. I look forward to working with you on behalf of our nation’s future – our students.

Thank you.