devos talks

Here’s what Betsy DeVos had to say in Denver about DACA, student loans and opting out of state tests

PHOTO: Nic Garcia
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes her seat at the Firefly Autism center in Denver.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s first multi-state school tour of her tenure took her Wednesday to a private Denver autism center, where she encouraged schools and parents to work together to better educate students with special needs.

After delivering remarks, DeVos took questions from reporters on issues ranging from President Donald Trump’s decision to end protections for young undocumented immigrants to her decision to reconsider guidance to colleges on sexual assault.

Chalkbeat also asked about the U.S. education department’s pushback on the state’s testing opt-out policy.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the question-and-answer session:

Fox 31: Denver Public Schools has invited you to visit its schools after you criticized them for a lack of choice options in a speech several months ago. Why not visit Denver Public Schools while you’re here? And what would you like to see them do to meet your full approval?

It’s a privilege to be here in Denver. And I expect I will be returning to Denver in the not-too-distant future.

We have started a tour, the “Rethink Schools” tour, in Casper, Wyo., yesterday, where I did visit the Woods Learning Center — a public school in Casper. It was a great visit. It was really meant to highlight innovative ways schools are meeting their students’ needs. It was a school that has been teacher-led for 25 years with personalized learning programs for each of their students. We’re going on from here to Omaha, to Missouri, to Kansas City — both Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., Gary, Ind., and ending in Indianapolis.

We have a whole variety of schools we’re visiting over these four days. The purpose of our tour is really meant to highlight all the many different innovative ways schools are approaching meeting the needs of their kids.

Chalkbeat: You’re an adamant supporter of school choice, of parent choice. So is our State Board of Education. They have championed a policy of not holding schools accountable when parents opt out their students from state tests. But your department has pushed back on that policy, saying it does not comply with federal law. How would you like to see this disagreement resolved?

I’m looking forward to reading all the plans from 30-some states that are due next week, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the innovative ways states are going to address the needs of students in their states.

(Editor’s note: Colorado previously submitted its plan and is rewriting some sections based on the federal education department’s feedback.)

And everywhere I go, I encourage states and local communities — I think decisions are made best at the local source, and local location. And that comes right down to school buildings. I refer back to the one I visited yesterday where the teachers initiated, 25 years ago, a very different approach. And they are empowered to meet the needs of their students there directly. I think a lot more schools can take a lesson from what they’re doing in addressing the needs of their students in really unique ways.

Chalkbeat: In your speech yesterday, you called for far more individualization in education. Is there a place for the traditional school in the United States, or are you thinking they should be completely abolished?

Personalizing a child’s education is a direction many schools are looking to go. There have been lots of pilot programs and efforts around personalized learning. I think schools really need to take a close look at this: to keep students engaged, to make them look forward to their learning. And instead of continuing in a model that was started a century and a half ago, where it was based on time in seats, let’s reverse that and base it on what students are learning and allow them to move at their pace and as quickly as they can.

AP: Is your department issuing any guidance to colleges or universities on what to do with DACA students?

That issue is very much in the forefront. It’s really on Congress’s plate right now. I’ve said this on several occasions before: We’re a nation of laws. We’re also a very compassionate people. And as President Obama said when this was initially implemented, it was a temporary solution. Congress really needs to address this issue. And I believe they will do so. These students are here pursuing their learning and we owe it to them to make sure they know their future is clarified and defined.

AP: Your department is rewriting student loan forgiveness rules. Has the White House contacted you, or weighed in at all on that process?

This is an ongoing process. We have a new federal student aid director who is getting after a lot of issues that really are important to students — not only current students, but past students, as well. Our goal is to simplify both the application process and also the payment process. Repayment plans have been multiple, confusing — and we need to make sure that we put the students first. And students then become the customers in satisfying the repayment of student loans, that we are putting the customer first, and making sure we’re taking care of them from a customer service perspective that hasn’t been done in a really coherent way.

AP: Has there been any consultation with the White House on this? Have they reached out?

We work closely with the White House on every issue with which we’re involved.

Chalkbeat: Coming back to the Endrew F. court case, the Supreme Court stopped short of dictating what a higher standard looked like. Where is your department on issuing any sort of new guidance around that to public schools?

The department wants to be a resource to parents who are looking for further information and clarification. Obviously, the Supreme Court decision is very complicated. And there are a lot of issues in there, and a lot of terminology parents might have questions on. We set up an email address, [email protected], for any parent to contact us directly with questions. We want to be there to not provide guidance but support for and technical support for any of the issues they’re dealing with.

Chalkbeat: What do you want teachers across the country who work day in and day out with students with special needs in public schools to know about your position on the court case and what your department is doing to support them as well?

Teachers are critical in this whole subject and this whole area. Equally important are the parents. And the parents really know their child best. And they know what’s best for their child. And so it’s my encouragement that schools and parents work together to really address the needs of their kids. I think that we have a very clear mandate under federal law to do right by all students that are served, and particularly those who are navigating with disabilities. We can help flourish and help them be everything they are meant to be.

CPR: I’ve been looking into innovation a lot this past month. The truly innovative teachers tell me they need an administration that encourages risk-taking and failure. Principals often are consumed with test scores, and so it’s not happening on that level. For teachers who aren’t innovating, they say it’s the evaluation system. What are your thoughts on that?

I think there are a lot of ways over the last number of decades that we have stifled change and innovation in education. You couldn’t be more right in that the risk-adverse nature (exists).

I’d argue because of a top down approach, both at the federal level and at the state level as well. I think teachers need to be empowered much more. They are most close to their students. And good teachers are going to be able to get the best out of their students.

But if they’re not empowered to do that, it really does put a wet blanket over everything. So I think that change needs to come systemically. And it does need to be oriented around trying new things and engaging students in ways they haven’t been before. There are way too many students who by grades four, five or six are mentally checked out because their curiosity has died because they’ve been in a system that is much more regimented than it is creative and innovative.

We need to be helping them learn critical thinking skills, communication skills, to foster their creativity and to learn how to collaborate. That’s how we work in adult life and that’s how children need to be able to learn through their formative years.

Fox 31: On Title IX, what would you say to survivors who are worried that you want to dismantle everything that has happened during the last few years?

We are focused on doing what’s right for all students: survivors and everyone involved in the horrible case of sexual assaults. And we’re committed to doing what is right for all students.

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Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.