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.