A rural high school where advanced students learn from Ivy League professors—remotely. A charter school for aspiring Marines. A space flight center.
Those are places that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos chose to highlight on her second back-to-school road trip, which visited four Southern states last week. The theme of this year’s tour was the same as last year’s: “Rethink School.”
In a speech in Huntsville, Ala., on the first day of the tour, DeVos argued that “next to nothing” has changed in education since 1983’s landmark “A Nation at Risk” report, which warned that the country was falling dangerously behind foreign competitors. Some students are “bored” in class and others are unable to study a subject they’re interested in because their school doesn’t offer it, she said.
“We must do better!” DeVos said at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, according to prepared remarks. “‘Better’ means we rethink school. ‘We’ means everyone. Every state, every community, every family. Everyone question everything to ensure nothing limits a student from being prepared for what comes next.”
The itinerary included states that her boss, President Donald Trump, carried in the 2016 election, sometimes by double-digit percentages: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
The kinds of questions the secretary is asking aren’t likely to go over well with educators, said Mark Hlavacik, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of North Texas in Denton and the author of Assigning Blame: The Rhetoric of Education Reform.
“If I were a teacher reading [her questions] I think I would mostly feel insulted by them,” he said. “It’s hard to read them as positive. There’s sort of this implication that ‘you all aren’t thinking hard enough about what you do.’ It’s not a very friendly appeal.”
In her Oct. 3 speech in Huntsville, though, DeVos seemed to be trying to appeal to educators, who she said often “express frustration that they aren’t trusted with more autonomy; that they aren’t honored with more flexibility; and that they aren’t respected as professionals who know their students and what each of them need to learn and achieve.”
Teachers, she said, need to be given more than a binary choice of staying in the classroom or becoming an administrator.
DeVos even called for the best teachers to be paid up to $250,000 a year, since “union bosses” make upwards of half a million dollars.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers made $450,000 in salary, plus $50,000 in related income in 2016, according to financial documents. Lily Eskelsen García made $390,000 in salary, plus $140,000 in related income in the 2015 calendar year, according to documents posted by the news organization Pro Publica.
But the Education Department isn’t exactly putting money where DeVos’ rhetoric is. In both of its budget requests, the Trump administration sought to zero out the $2 billion Title II program, which helps cover the cost of teachers’ salaries in many districts. Congress rejected the proposal.
DeVos’ first stop, also on Oct. 3, was the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She visited a trio of programs aimed at “entrepreneurship,” including Project ENGAGES, which pairs students at six high schools in Atlanta with scientists from Tech for help with “real world” engineering, science, and technology research projects. She also visited CREATE-X, which trains Tech students to launch start-ups, and “InVenture”, which hosts an innovation competition nicknamed “American Idol for Nerds,” after the popular singing show.
While at Georgia Tech, DeVos demonstrated a new app that will allow students to submit or renew their Free Application for Federal Financial Aid, or FAFSA, from a mobile device.
But she also ran into protestors. About 20 students chanted “Betsy DeVos, go home!” and held up signs reading “Devostating,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Previously, DeVos swung by the Marshall Space Flight Center, also in Huntsville, which offers a “space camp” to help students learn about aerospace engineering, as well as free field trips.
On the second day of her tour, DeVos visited an early-childhood education center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a career and technical education facility at Shelton State Community College. DeVos and Trump have talked a lot about career education. But they have yet to kick additional federal resources toward it. In fact, Trump’s first budget proposal sought a $168 million cut to the $1.1 billion program. (Congress did not go along with that.)
DeVos also stopped by Lexington, Miss., in Holmes County, one of the poorest counties in the country and about an hour from the state capital in Jackson. The secretary checked out Holmes County High School’s Advanced Placement program, which is taught in part by professors and tutors at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., who participate via Skype. She also held a round table with parents, educators, and students. At that stop, she released a “parent friendly” guide to the Every Student Succeeds Act, which explains the federal law in plain language.
Lisa Karmacharya, the executive director of the Mississippi Association of Superintendents, said school leaders in the state were “anxious to show off” to the secretary. But that doesn’t mean they support her push for school vouchers or cuts to K-12 programs.
“Gotta say, there is a sense of relief knowing that the federal budget is a bit healthier for next year and that there was not much movement on the president’s/secretary’s push toward choice,” Karmacharya said in an email.
DeVos was also slated to head to New Orleans and visit Edward Hynes Charter School. She also planned to stop by the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy, a charter school where all students are part of the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Program.
A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as DeVos Takes Message on Southern Road Trip