madame secretary

Betsy DeVos is coming to Denver for a meeting of the conservative group ALEC — and protesters are ready

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is scheduled to speak in Denver next week at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that has successfully advocated for free-market principles at statehouses across the country.

While DeVos will find a friendly audience at ALEC, she’ll get a different greeting from liberal activists and union leaders who are seizing on the chance to protest DeVos’s agenda.

This is DeVos’s first visit to Colorado since the billionaire philanthropist and school choice advocate was confirmed as President Donald Trump’s pick for the nation’s top education job.

DeVos has close ties to ALEC. She is the founder of the American Federation for Children, which provides financial support to ALEC and has representation on ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force.

ALEC is best known for crafting “model” legislation advancing conservative principles on issues ranging from tax limitations to gun safety and the environment. Its membership includes corporations and nearly 2,000 state legislators across the country.

DeVos shares ALEC’s support for charter schools and the use of tax dollars to pay for private school education through vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts.

As of Thursday, DeVos’s appearance was not listed on the meeting’s online agenda. An ALEC spokeswoman confirmed DeVos will appear, but said details including the timing still were being worked out. The group’s meeting runs Wednesday through Friday.

Inez Feltscher Stepman, director of ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force, lauded DeVos’s support for school choice and for making clear that decision-making about education should be invested in states.

“It’s really encouraging to hear (states) should have the primary responsibility for crafting their education systems, and should be the leaders in education reform and opportunity,” she said.

A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman did not respond to questions this week about whether DeVos has any other stops or appearances planned during her Colorado trip.

The secretary has a standing invitation from Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado to visit Denver Public Schools and get a window into the district’s brand of school choice.

DeVos has been critical of DPS, implying that its choices are lacking because students can’t use private school vouchers or don’t have enough charter schools from which to choose.

Bennet, a former DPS superintendent, fired back, saying DeVos was wrong. In a later interview with Chalkbeat, he called her an ideologue who is not the face of education reform.

A DPS spokesman said Thursday a member of DeVos’s team contacted the district to ask about learning more about its efforts to serve students learning English. Approximately 37 percent of Denver’s 92,000 students are English language learners. The spokesman said the district is working to connect the DeVos team member with DPS’s experts, but “there are no plans in place right now.”

A “Denver RESISTS DeVos” protest, meanwhile, is planned for 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday outside the state Capitol involving multiple groups. The protest is being promoted on a Facebook page hosted by Tay Anderson, a 2017 Manual High School graduate who is running for a Denver school board seat. It’s part of a broader “ALEC resistance” effort that includes a “teach-in.”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is planning to make signs that morning, take part in the protest and then march to the ALEC meeting at a downtown hotel, according to its Facebook event page.

John Ford, president of Jefferson County Education Association and a scheduled speaker at Wednesday’s protest, said in a statement via email that “voucher schemes and other failed reforms” DeVos will promote are not welcome in Colorado.

I saw the sign(s)

Demonstrators display frustration with DeVos at Denver protest

Protestors march from the Capitol to the Hyatt Regency Denver, where ALEC is holding their annual meeting. (Photos by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

“DeVos is DeWorst”

“Left or Right, We Can All See Wrong”

“School Librarians Say Shhhh! to Betsy!”

Those are some of the hundreds of colorful signs demonstrators carried at the Capitol Wednesday to protest U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ scheduled Denver visit.

The Trump appointee is expected to speak Thursday at a luncheon during the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting at the Hyatt Regency downtown. Wednesday’s protest was organized by Denver school board candidate Tay Anderson with help from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Featured speakers included local activists, teachers and legislators. Demonstrators then marched from the Capitol to the Hyatt.

Here are some selected images from the demonstration.

During the school year, Andy Fine is an elementary school teacher in Loveland’s Thompson School District. This summer he’s interning with the CEA, and rallied more than 25 Thompson teachers and parents to drive to Denver for Wednesday’s action. “Someone’s gotta stand up for our kids,” he said. “My life and passion is standing up for kids.”

Jessica Price, a teacher at Overland High School in Aurora, brought her 6-year-old daughter Maycie Turner to the protest. “I’m here because what we’re doing is working,” she said. “People are getting the message.”

Mike Badar’s father taught in Flint, Michigan for 30 years. He said his biggest concern is DeVos will blur the line separating church and state. “She does not like history, and she wants to rewrite it based on her religious principles,” he said.

Denver Public Schools teacher Michael Durga waited calmly outside the Capitol for the protest to start Wednesday morning. Donning a T-shirt that read “Proud public school teacher,” Durga carried a colorful flag urging support for public schools and a sign themed after the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. “DeVos is a nightmare,” he exclaimed. “I want her to know that I am opposed to everything she stands for.”

Pam Wilson, a self-professed “concerned citizen,” marched from the Capitol to the Hyatt Regency spritzing fellow marchers and passerby with a spray bottle filled with water. She decorated the bottle with a crossed-out image of DeVos’s face. “It’s bear spray,” she laughed.

The man behind the Neil Gorsuch mask is Ian Kolsky, a DPS teacher. Kolsky and four others dressed as Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices. The demonstrators belong to a group called Move to Amend, which calls for a constitutional amendment limiting the rights of corporations.

Rallying cry

At DeVos protest, opponents seek to tie Trump education appointee to Denver school board

Hundreds of protesters circled the hotel where Betsy DeVos is scheduled to speak Thursday. (Photo by Marissa Page/Chalkbeat)

Several hundred protesters, many of them teachers, gathered at the state Capitol Wednesday to rail against what they called the privatization of public education under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is scheduled to give a speech in Denver Thursday.

With local school board elections looming in November, speakers at Wednesday’s rally sought to tie the policies championed by billionaire Republican DeVos to those enacted by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Democrats on the nonpartisan school board.

“In November, we have the opportunity to take our school board back!” said Rachael Lehman, a parent of an East High graduate.

She called for “a school board revolution,” saying “DeVos-style policies” have harmed Denver’s traditional schools, three of which the school board recently voted unanimously to close after years of lagging test scores.

DeVos has become a national target of teachers unions and progressive Democrats. Before Trump appointed her education secretary, she used her personal wealth to push for the expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers, which unions staunchly oppose.

Unions in Colorado and across the country have already begun using DeVos’s image and unpopularity to push back against charter school-friendly legislation and policies. And more is expected during the fall school board elections.

Four seats on the seven-member Denver school board are up for grabs in this November’s election. All seven seats are currently held by members who support DPS’s brand of education reform, which embraces school choice, though not vouchers. Boasberg has repeatedly sought to differentiate DPS’s approach from DeVos’s.

“We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter,” he said earlier this year.

A sweep by candidates who oppose the district’s reforms could change its direction.

One of those candidates, recent Manual High graduate Tay Anderson, planned the rally, which drew teachers, parents, students and others from across the state. Toward the end, Anderson took the microphone to call out current Denver board members for attending.

“They want to show up when they need your vote!” he said.

“But we can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’”

Board member Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election, was at the rally, holding a sign he made that said, “What is scarier? Grizzly? Or Betsy?” To compare DPS’s policies to those promoted by DeVos, who has criticized the district, “is just a mistake,” he said.

“I think that everybody there, including myself, believes the Trump agenda for public education is disastrous,” Johnson said of rally attendees, “and I think that we ought to be fighting this fight together instead of using it for our own local purposes.”

Johnson was the only DPS board member Chalkbeat saw at the rally. Board vice president Barbara O’Brien, who is also running for re-election, said she asked rally organizers if she could speak but “they made it clear that I wasn’t welcome.”

Some rally speakers appealed directly to DeVos. Denver teacher JoZi Martinez implored her to “leave public education to the experts: we the teachers and the administrators in the trenches.”

“This is not a monarchy and you are clearly not a queen, Ms. DeVos,” she said.

The crowd cheered when she urged DeVos to step down. Pleas to stop voucher programs, reduce standardized testing and provide free community college also got big applause.

Mentions of the group Democrats for Education Reform, which has been active in Denver school board elections, elicited loud boos. When state Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat and former public school music teacher, condemned members of his own party for supporting education reform, rally attendees began chanting “shame, shame!”

After the speeches, Anderson grabbed a bullhorn and led the protesters on a march to the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel. They snaked around the city-block-sized hotel, waving signs and shouting, “This is what democracy looks like!” among other chants.

The annual meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is taking place at the hotel Wednesday through Friday. On Thursday, DeVos is scheduled to address the lawmakers, lobbyists and business leaders from around the country in attendance.

Another target of teachers unions, ALEC is known for providing its members with model legislation and policies that promote free-market education reform principles.