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
Betsy DeVos is scheduled this month to make her first visit to Tennessee as U.S. secretary of education.

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.

devos watch

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.