Secret Betsy DeVos Visit to Calif. School Upsets Some Parents

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos answers questions during a visit to Cameron Middle School Monday, April 1, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos answers questions during a visit to Cameron Middle School Monday, April 1, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.
—Mark Humphrey/AP
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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos paid a deliberately low key visit to a Poway Unified school on Thursday. Her staff told district officials not to tell the public about the visit beforehand, not even parents.

Later that day, Poway’s superintendent, Marian Kim-Phelps, posted on Facebook pictures of herself, school board members, students and other education officials smiling and posing with DeVos at the school. She wrote that she was “very honored” to host DeVos at the school, Design 39 Campus, which is billed as an innovative, district choice school.

Within a day, people plastered the post with angry comments. In many cases, they criticized the district for letting DeVos into a school.

The conservative secretary and billionaire philanthropist appointed by President Donald Trump has been controversial for many things in the typically left-leaning world of education, for positions and actions such as her efforts to expand private school choice, revocation of federal guidance on student discipline, campus sexual assaults, special education, and more.

One Poway parent wrote that she would have showed up at the school to protest had she known about the visit beforehand.

“Betsy DeVos may hold ‘the highest position in education’ but that is meaningless when all she is trying to do is destroy public education,” wrote Lindsay Ray, who said she is a Poway Unified parent, on the Facebook post. “This visit should have been turned down.”

As the backlash rolled in, Kim-Phelps wrote more to clarify the terms of the visit.

First of all, Poway did not initiate the visit, she said, DeVos did.

Kim-Phelps also defended DeVos’ visit to the school, even though she said she doesn’t agree with “how DeVos has used her position so far.”

Kim-Phelps said she takes issue with DeVos’ hope to have $5 billion in federal tax credits for private school scholarships. She wants DeVos to focus more on funding public schools, which are struggling to meet funding demands for special education and other items.

Still, DeVos holds the nation’s highest position in education, and letting her visit the school doesn’t mean that Poway Unified endorses her policies, Kim-Phelps wrote in a column published Monday in the Poway News Chieftain, which is owned by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Do I believe her visit is something to apologize for? No, I do not,” Kim-Phelps wrote. "[Poway Unified] was given the rare opportunity to affect education on a national level. We did not waste it.”

Kim-Phelps said she thinks that, if Poway had refused to allow DeVos in to a school, it “would likely just fuel [DeVos’] own beliefs or biases about public education.”

“As a superintendent of a public school district, I serve as an advocate for public education,” Kim-Phelps wrote. “Sometimes that means having difficult conversations and interacting or engaging with people that may have differing opinions, to try to influence and bring awareness to the actual work and successes happening in our public schools. This was one of those opportunities.”

Perhaps showing DeVos an innovative public school like Poway’s Design 39—the district’s newest—could help change her mind about public schools, Poway Unified spokeswoman Christine Paik suggested.

“We know that she’s... had certain views about public schools, and why wouldn’t we try to help change that?” Paik said.

Poway Unified did not announce DeVos’ visit ahead of time because DeVos’ staff said so. It was “a security matter,” Kim-Phelps wrote. She said the district wouldn’t have been able to guarantee people’s safety had protesters gathered at the school.

DeVos visited the Poway school because a former U.S. Department of Education fellow told her about the school, according to the department.

The fellow, Megan Power, is a Design 39 teacher. Power had done a presentation about Design 39 for DeVos, and DeVos “has wanted to visit ever since,” said Liz Hill, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, in an email statement.

“Design 39 is a stellar example of rethinking education and doing things differently to meet the needs of students,” Hill said in the statement. “The Secretary was thrilled to learn more about the school’s innovative approach firsthand.”

Hill provided no other comments about DeVos’ visit.

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Design 39 opened its doors in 2014. Teachers, including Power, as well as students, community members, and parents helped create the school based on the idea that traditional education needs to change.

About 1,100 students go to Design 39. Students there lead much of their own learning, which is based in real-life work. For example, when students there want to go on a field trip, it’s students who research, budget, plan, and present field trip ideas for the class to vote on, said Paik, who is also a Design 39 parent.

The school is based on design thinking, which means students take a problem-solving approach, formulating hypotheses and testing solutions.

Design 39 is a selective school that enrolls all its students through a lottery process, with priority given to siblings of current students and children of employees of the district.

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