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Six things you should know about Betsy DeVos’s tense trip to Harvard

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Harvard.

By now, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos must be used to a tough audience. Her reception at Harvard Thursday, featuring plenty of protesters, was no exception — in line with what she’s faced at Senate confirmation hearings and at school visits across the country.

DeVos was attending a school choice conference filled with supporters of her perspective, and she was questioned by Harvard Professor Paul Peterson, who has long advocated for private school vouchers. But she was also met a number of skeptical audience questions.

Here were some highlights from the night:

1. DeVos has a new analogy: schools are like restaurants and food trucks.

The education secretary has compared schools to taxis and Blockbuster to emphasize the need for innovation. We need schools operating like Uber and Netflix, she’s urged.

On Thursday, she offered a new metaphor for school choice — one that tried to deflect criticisms that she is anti-public education.

“Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants. But you know what — food trucks started lining the streets to provide options,” DeVos said. “Some are better than others, and some are even local restaurants that have added food trucks to their businesses to better meet their customers’ needs.”

“Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?” she asked. “No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at the time.”

This gets at the heart of the school choice debate — whether or not schools should function like consumer goods in a marketplace.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Protestors at Betsy DeVos’s speech on school choice at Harvard.

2. Eight months on the job hasn’t changed her view that the feds should play a minimal role in deciding how schools are run or which schools are working.

The first question lobbed at DeVos came from a parent who has sent her children to district, charter and parochial schools, but argued that “as a whole, most [school] systems … aren’t working for black parents like me.”

The question focused on DeVos and the federal government’s role in ensuring quality schools: “Why don’t you think that you should have any say or any control over setting minimums … so systems aren’t the wild, wild West?”

DeVos, a skeptic of the federal role in education, immediately pivoted back to school choice. “My goal, my hope, is that all parents like you and all others would have the power to choose a school that is right for your child,” she said. “Accompanying that there has to be a lot of great information available to parents.”

DeVos also demurred when Peterson asked her a nitty-gritty question on ESSA, the federal accountability law. Peterson noted that many states — whose plans have been approved by DeVos’s education department — have decided to judge schools, in part, by rates of student chronic absenteeism. DeVos wouldn’t say what she thought of this.

“All the states are coming up with different measures,” she said. “I’m not sure that that’s the right approach or the best approach, but I’ll withhold judgment, and let’s see what the states’ results are.”

3. She’s still on the defensive when it comes to Michigan’s charter schools.

One questioner, who — like DeVos — is from Michigan, echoed a common criticism of the secretary: “Thanks in part to your advocacy, we [Michigan] lead the nation in for-profit schools, paired with some of the weakest accountability laws. … Given the fact that in Michigan students have a lot of choice, but not good choices, and corporations are profiting from that, why do you think that choice is appropriate for the nation?”

DeVos responded, “Of the students that are still left in the city of Detroit, 49 percent of them” — here, the audience reacted with guffaws and boos, and DeVos interrupted herself. “Excuse me, everybody who has had means and wants to move elsewhere has moved outside the city of Detroit. And the students that are there, 49 percent of them have chosen to go to charter schools. Nobody is forcing them to go to charter schools.”

“Of the traditional public schools in Detroit,” she continued, “not one of them has ever been closed down because of performance, not one. Yet there have been over 20 charter schools closed. … The reality is, of kids going to charter schools in Michigan and in the city of Detroit, they are gaining three or four months per year over their public school counterparts.”

DeVos appears to be referencing the CREDO study of Michigan charters, which shows that charter students outscore similar kids in public schools on standardized tests.

It’s also worth noting that while it may be true that no Detroit district schools have been closed explicitly for performance, well over 100 Detroit district schools have shut down since 2000, presumably due to declining enrollment. And another study from CREDO found that low-achieving district schools in Michigan were more likely to close than low-achieving charters.

4. Research undermines DeVos’s claims on school choice and school spending.

In her speech, DeVos hit on what she believes works (school choice) and what she thinks doesn’t work (spending more money).

She pointed to a study released Wednesday on Florida’s tax-credit voucher program, saying that it “demonstrated the longer a student participated in the choice program, the better their long-term educational outcomes.”

Later, she said, “More funding? Does that fix the problem? Again, the data would show otherwise, with the U.S. spending significantly more per pupil than nearly every other country in the developed world – and without the student achievement to go along with it.”

The research on voucher programs is more mixed than she suggests. It also may be misleading to say that students who stay in private school through Florida’s program longer, benefit more; as the researchers acknowledge, this may have less to do with the program and more to do with the types of students who stick around.

On funding, DeVos’s claim is also difficult to support. Recent research shows that schools and students do in fact benefit from additional resources. DeVos is right that in raw dollars per student, the U.S. outspends most other countries. As a percentage of GDP, though, our spending on K-12 education is about average.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Protestors at Betsy DeVos’s speech on school choice at Harvard.

5. DeVos is excited about tax credits, but federal action isn’t imminent

The education secretary reiterated that she’s interested in a tax credit program that would help parents send their students to private school — but that she had no plans to make any announcements.

“Not here and not now,” DeVos said. “There’s certainly a lot of hope for that.”

“I would just hope that more states would embrace this notion and the ones that actually have it would expand their offering and get even more assertive about offering parents more of these choices,” she added.

Eighteen states have already adopted those policies, which allow individuals to donate to nonprofits, then get a tax cut for amount they donated. The donated money is doled out as tuition stipends, which function just like school vouchers.

Congressional Republicans’ new proposal to overhaul to federal tax policy, unveiled Wednesday, didn’t touch school choice.

6. She stayed calm as audience members unfurled protest banners and students asked pointed questions about her wealth and her department’s Title IX changes.

Outside the event, protesters took up about a city block in front of the Harvard Kennedy School. Speakers included presidents of Boston Teachers Union and the New England NAACP, plus Boston mayoral candidate Tito Jackson. The crowds sang “When the Schools Belong to Us” to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Inside, one student asked, “How much do you expect your net worth to increase as a result of your policy choices?” to laughs and snaps.

“I’ve been involved with education choice for 30 years,” she responded. “I have written lots of checks to support giving parents and kids options to choose a school of their choice. The balance on my income has gone very much the other way and will continue to do so.”  

Grace Tatter contributed reporting.

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Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.