U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos kicked off her first public speech Wednesday by casting the protesters who sought to block her from visiting a Washington, D.C., middle school last week as part of a divisive opposition that’s resistant to fresh ideas.
“By keeping kids in and new thinking out, Friday’s incident demonstrates just how hostile some people are to change and to new ideas,” DeVos said in a roughly seven-minute speech at the Magnet Schools of America conference in downtown Washington. “Without realizing it, we, too, can fall victim to this trap of seeing our work in education as an ‘us vs. them’ approach. I know this to be true throughout the reform community, where there are those who claim to be champions of education, but they really only support their respective ‘sectors.’ These silos are unnecessary and unproductive in our common goal to serve all students.”
And DeVos, who didn’t face protestors Wednesday, praised magnet schools, which are public schools organized around a particular subject area such as arts or technology, as “the original school choice option.” She gave a shout-out to City High Middle School, a magnet school in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. (The DeVos family has helped finance some of the district’s programs, including its theme schools.)
“Let’s also celebrate the fact that there are more than 2.6 million students benefitting from attending 3,285 magnet schools,” she said of the nationwide enrollment.
Her numbers appeared to be slightly outdated, according to a fact sheet distributed by the Magnet Schools of America. The organization reports that there are 4,340 magnet schools, serving nearly 3.5 million students nationally. Todd Mann, the group’s executive director, told reporters later that, “We’re all doing our best to make sure that she has the current information.” UPDATE: DeVos used figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, as is department policy. Her numbers came from the 2014-15 school year, the most recent NCES data available.
In a short question and answer period with Mann following her speech, DeVos said magnets aren’t drawing enough attention to their success.
“You may not be tooting your horns well enough,” she said. “And I think there’s ample opportunity to really highlight the tremendous successes of so many magnet schools across the country. That’s a great opportunity to seize especially as we have more and greater conversation about meeting the needs of all kids and giving all kids an equal opportunity for a high-quality, great education. I’m really agnostic as to the delivery mechanism as long as we’re focused on what a child needs and what is best for each individual child.”
Mann noted that magnet schools have been used as a strategy to promote diversity. (Prominent examples include districts in Hartford, Conn., and Louisville, Ky.) He asked DeVos how she views promoting diversity as a strategy for improving student achievement.
“I think experiencing and being a part of a diverse environment is really critical to the development of any young person, any child, any student,” DeVos said. “I think when you get to know and befriend people who are different than yourself it is only enriching and enhancing for you.”
Mann noted that magnet schools lag behind charter schools when it comes to federal funding. Magnets are currently receiving about $96 million a year, compared to charters, which get about $333 million from the feds.
The Obama administration had sought an increase for magnets, to $115 million, in part to encourage districts to use the schools as a strategy to make schools more integrated. The House Appropriations Committee, though, is heading in the other direction, seeking to eliminate funding for the program altogether in its fiscal year 2017 spending bill.
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.”
In an interview with reporters after DeVos departed, Mann said he wasn’t dismayed that she wasn’t ready to promise more money for magnets.
“I wouldn’t have expected that at this stage,” he said, noting that the Trump administration is just getting into its budget planning. But he said he was heartened by her embrace of magnets as a form of choice. “Given her work with private schools, with vouchers, I think the fact that she’s talking about magnet schools is good. ... There’s a benefit to having her come here. When you go anywhere it forces you to bone up on an area [where] you may be weak. I think it created an awareness in the area of magnet schools.”
President Donald Trump takes his seat as he arrives for a meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and parents and teachers on Tuesday at the White House.--Evan Vucci/AP