By Evie Blad and Andrew Ujifusa
An under-the-radar visit to a California public school by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has highlighted the angry reaction DeVos can still draw from some members of the public, as well as the balancing act school leaders must engage in when a prominent official comes to visit.
When DeVos visited the Poway Unified district near San Diego May 16, her staff asked school officials not to publicize the visit beforehand, Superintendent Marian Kim-Phelps wrote in an opinion piece for the San Diego Union Tribune. Kim-Phelps said swarms of protestors could present a safety risk.
“Her team was very specific on the need for security protocols to be followed. This included no communication to the public about her visit,” Kim-Phelps wrote.
Parents and members of the public didn’t learn of the secretary’s two-hour visit to the district’s Design 39 Campus until after, when Kim-Phelps shared photos taken by Poway Unified communications staff on her Facebook page. A stream of critical comments followed, many slamming DeVos’ support of private school choice.
“Absolutely appalling” one commenter wrote. “Please explain why you made such a poor decision. That woman will do NOTHING to help the students in our district.”
“Surely, you’re aware of the fact that her goal is to weaken public schools, right?” another person wrote. “It’s your right to take a photo with her, but did you expect a warm reception here after posting it publicly when we’re actually trying to make the future brighter for our children, not worse for them?”
This isn’t the only instance of DeVos’ aides keeping her visits lower profile, informing the media after they’ve occurred or inviting a small pool of reporters to follow her. When DeVos visited Kentucky recently, high school newspaper staffers said they weren’t given proper notice of the event.
A spokesperson for the Education Department did not respond to several requests for comment.
The Poway superintendent wrote in her opinion piece that she saw the visit as a chance to show DeVos the promise of strong public schools.
“Going into this, I was aware of the controversy surrounding the secretary, especially when it comes to her stance and actions regarding public education,” Kim-Phelps wrote. “As a superintendent of a public school district, I serve as an advocate for public education. 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.”
Design 39 Campus is a K-8 school that seeks to promote individualized education based on the needs of each student through approaches like inquiry-based learning. DeVos, who has a “Rethink School” campaign, visited at the recommendation of a former Education Department fellow who teaches at the school.
A district spokesperson did not return a call seeking further details about the visit Wednesday.
Clickbait and Chaos
While some past education secretaries have kept a relatively low profile, DeVos was seen as a lightning rod right out of the gate, starting with a contentious confirmation process in 2017. The first school DeVos visited as secretary was a Washington, D.C., public school, where she got a hostile reception from several protesters and was initially blocked from entering the building (she eventually entered through a side door).
DeVos has since traveled with security from U.S. Marshals, a rare step for an education secretary that could cost $20 million by September 2019, NBC News reported. But the potential for chaos at schools has caused some schools to shy away from official visits. In February 2017, the San Diego school board pulled a resolution to invite DeVos to visit after facing strong pushback.
The secretary has made it clear that she’s conscious of her ability to polarize opinion: In remarks at the Education Writers Association conference earlier this month, DeVos said the media often use her as “clickbait” and should focus on students instead.
Other education secretaries have been viewed as less divisive, but they’ve also faced some protestors. In 2015, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan encountered protesters in Chicago who were upset about exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Duncan avoided speaking to them.
School leaders always have to be ready for these sorts of visits, even if it largely involves just giving staff a heads-up.
Brian Toth, the superintendent of the St. Marys district in Pennsylvania, said when his district hosted U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and state government officials, there weren’t problems with protests or disruptions. But in those situations, he’s made sure to tell his security staff beforehand, “just so they can keep an extra eye open for things.” Visiting dignitaries to his schools haven’t had security details, Toth noted, but he said he’d be sure to heed whatever security protocols an inbound official wants: “We respect whatever the visitor would like to have done.”
When staffers for then-President Bill Clinton told Fairfax County, Va., schools that the president wanted to visit an elementary school there shortly after news broke of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Dan Domenech, the district’s superintendent at the time, said he wasn’t about to say no to the president. (Fairfax County is just outside of Washington, D.C.) However, he did work with the administration to try to ensure that Clinton’s visit occurred at the time of day that would cause the least possible disruption to the school, among other things. Clinton, he noted, got an overwhelmingly positive reception when he came to the school.
“The problem arises when it is an individual with some degree of notoriety, and negative notoriety at that,” said Domenech, who’s now the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. However, he also echoed a point made by Kim-Phelps, that DeVos’ position should be respected irrespective of her specific views, and that telling a school community in advance of such a visit can also create complications.
As secretary, DeVos has visited dozens of public schools (both traditional public schools and charters) in states ranging from Florida to Oregon. Protesters have also greeted her when she’s visited schools in states such as Maryland and Nebraska.
Reasons for her trips to these schools vary from highlighting a high school’s work to improve academic results for disadvantaged students, to touring facilities after damage caused by natural disasters. However, during a controversial 2018 interview with the “60 Minutes” CBS News program, DeVos did catch some heat for admitting she didn’t “intentionally” visit low-performing schools.
So how would you react if DeVos visited the school where you teach or send your children? Let us know in the comments section.