Betsy DeVos Portrays Protesters As Resistant to Change in K-12
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos kicked off her first public speech by casting protesters who had attempted to block her from visiting a District of Columbia middle school as part of a divisive opposition that’s resistant to fresh ideas.
“By keeping kids in and new thinking out, [the] incident demonstrates just how hostile some people are to change and to new ideas,” she said in a roughly seven-minute speech at the Magnet Schools of America conference in downtown Washington Feb. 15, the week after the protest incident.
“Without realizing it, we, too, can fall victim to this trap of seeing our work in education as an ‘us vs. them’ approach. ... These silos are unnecessary and unproductive in our common goal to serve all students.”
DeVos went on to praise magnet schools, which are public schools organized around a particular subject area such as the arts or technology, as “the original school choice option.” She gave a shoutout to City High Middle School, a magnet school in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. (The DeVos family has helped finance some of the Grand Rapids district’s programs, including its theme schools.)
“Let’s also celebrate the fact that there are more than 2.6 million students benefiting from attending 3,285 magnet schools,” she said, citing National Center for Education Statistics figures from the 2014-15 school year, the most recent NCES data available.
A fact sheet distributed by the Magnet Schools of America shows an even bigger footprint, reporting that there are 4,340 magnet schools, serving nearly 3.5 million students nationally.
In a short question-and-answer period with DeVos after the speech, Todd Mann, the group’s executive director, noted that magnet schools lag behind charter schools when it comes to federal funding. Magnets are currently receiving about $96 million a year, compared with charters, which get about $333 million from the federal government.
DeVos wouldn’t commit to asking for more money for magnets. “I think all great schools should be highlighted and should be supported,” she said. “That said, I don’t think we should be as focused necessarily on funding school buildings, as much as we should be having conversations about funding students. If students are funded at the appropriate levels and equally, and they’re making choices to go to schools like magnet schools, you all are doing a tremendous job.”
Feeling Slighted, D.C. Teachers Blast Secretary of Education
Meanwhile, the education secretary’s first visit to a public school—her Feb. 10 tour of the District of Columbia’s Jefferson Middle School Academy, where the protesters tried to keep her out—continued to generate some awkward headlines for DeVos.
After visiting with teachers and school leaders at Jefferson, DeVos pronounced it “awesome.” But in a subsequent interview with conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, she also described her visit this way:
“I ... met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students. ... But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.”
Jefferson’s teachers did not take kindly to the secretary’s contention that they’re waiting to be told what to do. And they fired back at her on Twitter Feb. 17.
'[Jefferson] teachers are not in a ‘receive mode.’ Unless you mean we ‘receive’ students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level,” said one.
Even former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson took to Twitter to show her disapproval of DeVos’ comments: “Sorry lady. Tried to give you the benefit of the doubt. But this is so amateur and unprofessional that it’s astounding. We deserve better.”
DeVos quickly jumped on Twitter and tried to assuage the teachers’ concerns. She said she was simply trying to make the case that they need to be “empowered” and freed from “government dictates,” although she wasn’t specific about what exactly she meant by that.
“Your teachers are awesome!” she replied, the day after the tweetstorm. “They deserve MORE freedom to innovate and help students.”
Forge Ahead on ESSA Plans, DeVos Tells State Schools Chiefs
The Obama administration’s accountability regulations for the Every Student Succeeds Act have been put on pause by the Trump administration, and they’re on thin ice in Congress. But the education secretary said in a letter last month to state schools chiefs that she wants states to keep going on their ESSA plans. And DeVos—as she said she would at her confirmation hearing—is keeping in place the Obama administration’s timeline for submitting the plans, which includes one early-bird deadline on April 3 and one later deadline, on Sept. 18.
So far, 17 states plus the District of Columbia have told the Education Department that they are shooting to have their plans ready in time for the April date.
There’s one twist though: The Obama administration’s accountability regulations—which Congress appears likely to toss—include a template for states to use as they build their ESSA plans. DeVos and company have said they are reviewing that template to make sure that it doesn’t ask for any information that isn’t “absolutely necessary.” DeVos’ department may release a new template for states by mid-March.
And the secretary said the department may also consider allowing a state or group of states to work together to craft their own template through the Council of Chief State School Officers, as long as such a template meets the requirements in the law.
Early Interviews With Ed. Sec. Go to Friendly Media Forums
In her first weeks in office, DeVos appeared to focus heavily on conservative outlets and media from her home state of Michigan to get her public message across, including on various areas of policy. The education secretary:
• Told Paul W. Smith, a conservative radio-talk-show host in Michigan, that her goal is to ensure that all schools “meet the need of every child that they serve, and in the cases that they don’t, parents and students should have other alternatives. ... All schools should be great for the children that they serve.”
• Opened up about her rocky Senate confirmation process in a print interview with Ingrid Jacques, the deputy editorial-page editor at the Detroit News, which endorsed her nomination.
• Gave a wide-ranging interview with Frank Beckmann, also a conservative radio-talk-show host in Michigan, in which she praised school-choice-friendly Florida as a great K-12 blueprint for the country and said the Every Student Succeeds Act “essentially does away with the notion of the [Common Core State Standards.]”
• Pledged to Michael Patrick Shiels, host of a conservative radio program in Michigan, that she’ll look out for “things that the [Education] Department has been doing that are probably not necessary or important for a federal agency to do.”
Chad Colby, who served as a deputy assistant secretary for communications in the Education Department during the George W. Bush administration, said the strategy of talking initially to generally sympathetic media is a good move for someone with DeVos’ background.
“Any communications professional would say, ‘Do some interviews, get comfortable with your voice,’ and I think that is a good strategy for her now,” said Colby, who is a vice president for communications and outreach at Achieve, a nonprofit, but who spoke only on his own behalf. He expects DeVos will bring in folks who can build relationships with reporters working for a wider range of publications. Until then?
“Press needs to be a little bit patient,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as Transition Update: Trump Administration