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At PTA, Betsy DeVos Talks School Safety, Does ’60 Minutes’ Damage Control

By Alyson Klein — March 13, 2018 4 min read
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attends a Cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump, Monday, June 12, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used a speech at the National Parent Teachers Association conference Tuesday to make a sales pitch for President Donald Trump’s school safety plan, which includes helping states to arm teachers. And she did some subtle damage control after her poorly-received “60 Minutes” interview, which aired Sunday and triggered hours of bad headlines and social media outrage.

The department has said the segment was “highly edited” and didn’t capture the secretary’s views. DeVos never referred directly to “60 Minutes” in her speech to the PTA. But she welcomed the chance to speak “unedited.” And some of the lines in her speech seemed to address her biggest perceived stumbles on the show.

For instance, at one point during “60 Minutes,” DeVos said that the nation hasn’t seen an uptick in achievement in decades, an assertion that the journalist Lesley Stahl challenged. On Tuesday, DeVos told the parents that she is unhappy that the nation ranks “in the middle of the pack” on international tests like the Program for International Student Assessment.

“We should never be satisfied with ‘average.’ Now, as you may have seen over the past couple of days, that seems to be a controversial sentiment—but it shouldn’t be,” DeVos said. “Now that I have the opportunity to speak unedited, I’m not afraid to call out folks who defend stagnation for what it really is: failure.”

DeVos’ biggest “60 Minutes” slip-up came when she was unable to name a place in her home state of Michigan where student achievement had improved because of increased competition. Tuesday, though, she had an example at the ready. “In Detroit ... students who attend charter schools perform twice as well as their traditional public school counterparts on state achievement tests,” DeVos told the PTA. (She tweeted a similar stat Monday).

And she noted that school choice remains “highly limited” in Michigan, which has a constitutional prohibition on private school vouchers. “As a result, students have suffered,” DeVos said. “That’s borne out in the data. Fourth grade reading and math scores are essentially a flat line, while states surrounding Michigan offer parents more choices and see improving student achievement.”

While DeVos talked up Trump’s school safety plan, she didn’t lead off with what is arguably its centerpiece, a proposal to help states that want to arm certain teachers.

Instead, she said that policymakers and educators must “first” acknowledge “issues of loneliness and isolation. We must find meaningful ways to help [students] reconnect, and we must address social/emotional learning.”

She also called on Congress to bolster background checks for gun purchases and pass the STOP Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow states to use federal funding to help prevent school violence by beefing up training for teachers, students, and law enforcement officials. DeVos is meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week, in part to discuss school safety.

And she did refer to the idea of helping states arm some teachers by offering “highly specialized courses to prepare school staff to respond to incidents,” similar to programs in Florida, Ohio, and Texas. She added that the feds could also help “military veterans and retired law enforcement” make the move to careers in education. (It’s not clear how that last idea would be different from Troops to Teachers, a federal program that’s been in place since at least 2001.)

But some of the parents listening to DeVos’ speech weren’t sold.

“Arming teachers is not the best route,” said Marques Ivey, a parent and school board president from Aurora, Colo., who spoke for himself and not on behalf of the PTA. “My wife is a teacher, and it freaks her out, the concept of actually having a gun and going through a potential chaotic situation where she could accidentally hurt one of her students. Even with training. There are police officers that get trained for scenarios and still make mistakes. How can we expect a teacher to do the same thing and not make mistakes?”

Ivey has some personal experience with mass shootings—he was at a movie theater when one happened in Aurora back in 2012, in which 12 people were killed.

And Ivey said he didn’t think DeVos acquitted herself well in the parts of the “60 Minutes” interview he’s seen, although he added that he “didn’t have the heart” to watch it all the way through.

“I thought there were probably questions there that she was not prepared for, but that’s the job of the reporter, and that’s her job to be prepared for that as well,” Ivey said. He’s ready, though, to keep working with the secretary. “We can’t pick and choose who gets put in that position, and unfortunately, we have to accept who is in that position, but also continue to advocate on behalf of our children.”

Donald Dunn, a parent from North Carolina, had a similar take. He didn’t think there was “anything new” in DeVos speech.

“She stayed on script,” he said. “I wish she would have talked more about funding, student achievement, what her long term goal was for schools other than just ‘we need to challenge’ the system. She is the system now.”

But other parents responded to DeVos’ pitch to “rethink” schools to better meet the needs of individual students.

“I was very inspired,” said Pamela Driggers, the president of the South Carolina PTA. Her own children, she said are the products of “schools of choice"—they attended a magnet school that helped them become fluent in French. “I just felt, as a mom, spot on with her message.”

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