U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hearkened back Thursday to the landmark Reagan-era report indicting America’s public schools and declared that not much has changed. Today’s education system is still putting the nation at risk, she charged.

Speaking in Nashville at the National Summit on Education Reform, she rallied education leaders to expand “school choice,” took swipes at teachers unions and Democrats, and spoke up for her boss’s campaign to overhaul the nation’s tax structure.

DeVos’s 20-minute address drew a standing ovation from most of the 1,100 people attending the 10th annual summit hosted by her friend Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida who founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, of which DeVos once served on the board.

She used the occasion to encourage influencers — from lawmakers to faith leaders — to fight for options that give choices to parents, flexibility to teachers, and personalized attention to students.

And borrowing a quote from Mark Twain, she assured the friendly audience that she will lead the charge from her perch at the U.S. Department of Education.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!” said DeVos, the subject of a viral report in Salon that she was expected to resign soon. “I’m not going anywhere! In fact, I’m just getting started!”

As the nub of her speech, DeVos referred to “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report released under then-Secretary of Education Terrell Bell that, in many ways, was the impetus for the modern education reform movement. The report decried “a rising tide of mediocrity” in public education and said America’s schools were failing to prepare students for a competitive workforce.

“We are a nation still at risk. We are a nation at greater risk,” said DeVos, citing the middle-of-the-pack performance of U.S. students in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. When it comes to student achievement, America is being outpaced by nations like China, Germany, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, she said.

“This is unacceptable. This is inexcusable. And this is truly un-American. We can — we must — do better,” DeVos said.

With the Republican tax plan hurtling toward a vote in Congress, DeVos praised it as the right change at the right time, despite concerns that the current proposals could constrain the ability of state and local governments to levy their own taxes, which could affect spending on schools.

“Our nation’s broken tax system is well overdue for comprehensive reform,” said the Michigan billionaire. “And I am so encouraged that, with the president’s leadership, leaders in Congress are poised to finally do something about it.”

DeVos lauded learning experiences tailored to the needs of students in settings that are chosen by parents. She gave examples of students who succeeded at charter and virtual schools and students who used tax-credit scholarship programs to attend private schools with public money. She gave a shout-out to Illinois for passing a private school tuition scholarship tax credit and to New Hampshire for efforts to pass similar legislation.

“Millions of kids today, right now, are trapped in schools that are failing them,” she said. “Millions more are stuck in schools that are not meeting their individual needs. And their parents have no options, no choices, no way out.”

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
DeVos visits with students in mechatronics classes at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

This was DeVos’s first visit to Tennessee as education chief, and she preceded her summit appearance by touring a career and technical education program on Wednesday at Oakland High School, a traditional public school in Murfreesboro, south of Nashville. On Thursday, she heralded students in those tracks as “fully engaged” in learning that eventually will help them land jobs in healthcare, engineering or automotive technology.

“I think we’ve really done a disservice to young people to suggest that the only path to success is a four-year college or university,” she told Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam during a Q&A following her address. “We need to change our language and encourage young people to find the areas that most interest them.”