U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos often attracts a cloud of attention when she visits a school. At the very beginning of her tenure, she was met with protesters, angered by her support of policies like private school vouchers, who tried to bar her from entering a Washington, D.C., middle school. When she stopped at a Poway, Calif., school in May, her staff asked the district not to publicize the visit in advance, a decision that was later met with backlash online.
But she’s also been greeted warmly by Native Alaskan children in remote schools, watched as students at an Indianapolis charter school designed T-shirt cannons as part of a project-based learning program, and read books with young students who probably didn’t know anything about the controversy that tends to follow her.
When DeVos took office, Education Week set out to track every school visit she made. We recently did a massive update of our interactive visit tracker with dozens of new visits and accompanying photos, videos, social media, and related news coverage.
Click here to visit “Tracking School Visits by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.” You can also explore the map at the bottom of this post.
Here are three things to know about DeVos’ school visits:
As education secretary, most of DeVos’ visits have been to public schools.
DeVos has spent her life—and her tenure as secretary—advocating for school choice. While supporters contend that families—particularly low-income families—benefit from alternatives to traditional, district-run public schools, opponents argue those alternatives can divert money from the traditional public schools that most children attend. And, beyond more broadly accepted options like charter schools, DeVos has championed public programs to support private school choice. That includes her proposal for a $5 billion tax-credit scholarship program.
So it may surprise some DeVos detractors to see the patterns in her school visits. By our count, the secretary has visited 77 schools so far, and majority of those schools, 44, were district-operated public schools. She’s also visited 18 charter schools, which make up the second-biggest category. (After you check out the map, please let us know if we missed any.)
Regardless of what type of school DeVos visits, she focuses on the same message.
As I noted in a story this week, DeVos rarely used the term “school choice” on her recent back-to-school tour. Rather, she referred to “education freedom,” which she says includes the freedom to not even choose a school at all. Students should have the option to mix and match an education experience from various components, including home schooling, private school, apprenticeships, or private services to supplement their experiences at district-run school, she said on her tour stops. I spoke with some political communications and policy experts about whether this rhetorical twist might help warm public opinion to her tax-credit scholarship proposal.
While some Trump administration officials seem skeptical that the “Education Freedom Scholarship” proposal will pass Congress and be enacted, DeVos still has a megaphone that could draw attention to similar state-level policies, the folks I spoke to said.
Even before her recent tour, DeVos spoke of “rethinking” education at almost every visit, even those to traditional public schools, which she referred to as “government-assigned schools” on a recent tour stop. What does that “rethinking” look like? Examples include magnet programs, project-based learning, public schools with computer labs that allow students to explore self-guided coursework, and dual enrollment programs, she says.
DeVos has a unique public profile compared to past education secretaries.
While past education secretaries, like those appointed by President Barack Obama, sometimes faced protests, or even calls to resign by national teachers unions, DeVos is a uniquely visible and divisive figure. A billionaire, she flies on her own private plane when she travels. And, at the direction of a Justice Department official, she also travels with U.S. Marshals, which has caused some critics to raise eyebrows. After Politico reported that DeVos’ security detail cost about $6.24 million in the recently ended 2019 fiscal year, former Obama-era Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticized the expense:
That money could sure buy a lot of books for kids... https://t.co/zjCj4S45UP
— Arne Duncan (@arneduncan) October 2, 2019
That prompted this response from a DeVos spokesperson:
It is baffling that Arne Duncan would find fault with the person who is being threatened, instead of blaming the people who are doing the threatening. Victim-blaming comments like this inflame heated rhetoric and are part of the problem, not the solution. https://t.co/S3pFMSX9QI
— ED Press Secretary (@EDPressSec) October 2, 2019
What are your takeaways from DeVos’ school visits? Explore our map below.
Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talks with pre-k students Alivia, 5, and Kellen, 5, while visiting the Van Wert Early Childhood Center in Van Wert, Ohio, in April, 2017 --Cathie Rowand/The Journal-Gazette via AP