SLC summit » As protesters rally outside, DeVos says all key decisions should be made by states, not by the feds.
Schools in the United States need to break free of the federal government’s “arcane” approach to education, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday during a visit to Utah.
Education needs new models, she said, like how video rentals gave way to streaming media. And families deserve a range of school options, like choosing between cellular service providers.
“Washington [D.C.] has been in the driver seat for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts,” DeVos said. “The facts show our system is antiquated, unjust and fails to serve students. And this is flat-out unacceptable.”
DeVos’ remarks came during the ASU+GSV Summit, an annual education technology conference held this year in Salt Lake City.
Her visit also included a tour of the Granite Technical Institute, a vocational training program operated by Granite School District, where she participated in a roundtable discussion with Utah government, school and manufacturing industry representatives.
“All of you coming together with a just-get-it-done attitude has clearly reaped benefits and rewards,” she said.
The tour and discussion highlighted the Utah Aerospace Pathways Program, which provides students with hands-on training in manufacturing, paid internships and potential job placement. DeVos met with Pathways students who were making violins, wallets and other items out of carbon fiber in the school’s composites lab.
“They’re out getting their hands dirty, really understanding what work means,” said Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “That changes a student’s perspective. It gives meaning to their education.”
DeVos said she loves to visit schools and learn about innovative programs throughout the country. She suggested Utah’s Pathways programs is an example of how to encourage youths to find their own route to a meaningful future.
“We’ve done young people a disservice for a long time in suggesting that if you’re going to be successful as an adult, that you have to go to a four-year college or university,” DeVos said. “That’s true for some students, but it’s not true for everyone.”
The new Education secretary has long been an advocate of and contributor to school-choice campaigns, including charter schools and private school vouchers. Many educator groups criticized President Donald Trump for selecting DeVos, objecting to a philanthropist with no public school experience heading the nation’s public education system.
DeVos’ nomination was also marked by notable gaffes during her confirmation hearings, including an apparent difficulty in defining different methods of student evaluation, her suggestion that teachers be armed to protect classrooms from bear attacks, and comments that states be given flexibility on federal special-education requirements.
At the ASU+GSV Summit, DeVos drew scattered chuckles throughout the audience, seemingly in regard to her lack of teaching and education policy experience, when she noted she did not go to Washington with “a whole lot of preconceived ideas.”
Her presence at the summit — a four-day, $3,000-per-person conference — was also met with a protest crowd of roughly 80 people on Main Street outside the Grand America Hotel.
Public school teachers, administrators, advocates and students raised signs and their voices during the hour-long protest. Kellie Henderson, organizer for Utah Indivisible, said the rally was to show DeVos that their concerns about her policy positions have not waned since her appointment earlier this year.
Whether it’s joking about free and reduced lunch or publicly working toward to federally-funded voucher program, Joel-Lehi Organista said DeVos and the administration have sent a clear message about their priorities in education.
“I want people in the administration to see that this is completely unacceptable,” said Organista, a health teacher at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center. “They’ve shown with their actions and words how much they don’t care about the people actually working in the classroom or for our students.”
The crowd chanted “public schools are not for sale, Betsy wants to see us fail” and “protect our schools” during Tuesday’s protest. Several protesters also made signs in support of their cause, reading “public money is for public schools” and “public schools made America great.”
Along with Utah Indivisible, Utahns Speak Out and the Alliance for a Better Utah joined the demonstration. Chase Thomas, policy and advocacy counsel with Better Utah, said public education is a fundamental component of the United States and needs to be supported, especially by its leader.
Summit moderator Jeane Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, asked DeVos to address the protests that have dogged her.
“Why all the backlash?” Allen said. “Why protest? Why screaming and yelling and what do you do about it?”
DeVos said people misunderstand the push for school choice options. She said no one will be forced to abandon a traditional public school that they’re happy with.
“I can only speculate that change is difficult,” she said of her critics’ motivations.
The Trump administration has a goal to invest in a voucher programs that would provide public funding to offset the tuition costs of private schools. DeVos said she expects a proposal to be ready “in the not-too-distant future” and that expanding school-choice options is necessary to improve the educational experience of individual children.
“Even the best school probably doesn’t serve the needs of every single student there,” she said. “I’ve had the privilege to make those decisions for my kids. I want that same privilege for everyone, no matter their ZIP code or their income.”
In 2007, Utah voters repealed a voucher law approved by lawmakers. Since then, many school-choice programs have been approved, like charter schools and open enrollment policies, but vouchers have remained a contentious subject in state politics.
DeVos said that while she would encourage state leaders to embrace and adopt a national voucher program, it would not be forced.
“It has to be up to the states what and whether to adopt in terms of choices,” she said. “But I think that the momentum around this has continued to build across the country.”
Reporter Kelly Gifford contributed to this article.