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At Harvard, DeVos Talks Choice; Protestors Yell 'White Supremacy'

Betsy DeVos_Harvard-600.jpg

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is followed by protestors almost everywhere she goes, but she faced an especially tough crowd at Harvard University Thursday.

There were chants of "This is what White supremacy looks like!" as the secretary left the auditorium, according to social media. During the speech, students held up signs saying things like "Our Children Are Not For Sale" and "Education Justice is Racial Justice." More than a thousand people "liked" a Facebook page protesting DeVos' appearance. Archon Fung, the academic dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, had to remind students to keep it civil as he introduced the secretary. And audience members asked DeVos some hard-edged questions. (More on those below).

DeVos, though, continued to press her case for helping students succeed by giving them more schooling options. Families, she said, should have as wide an array of schools to choose from as they have options of where to eat for lunch or dinner.

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

"Think about how you eat. You could visit a grocery store, or a convenience store, or a farmer's market to buy food and cook at home. Or you could visit a restaurant," she said in the speech, which was streamed online. "Just as in how you eat, education is not a binary choice.  Being for equal access and opportunity—being for choice—is not being against anything ... I'm not for or against one type, one brand, or one breed of school choice. I'm not for any type of school over another."

And DeVos doesn't think the federal government is in the best position to make a school-choice smogasbord happen. 

"Washington does have an important supporting role to play in the future of choice. We can amplify the voices of those who only want better for their kids," DeVos said. "We can assist states who are working to further empower parents, and urge those who haven't [to act]. We don't need a new federal program to administer. Washington, and in particular the U.S. Department of Education, just needs to get out of the way."

It's unclear how that sentiment squares with President Donald Trump's budget proposals, which include a new competitive-grant program aimed at helping school districts offer private school vouchers. If that proposal passes in Congress—which isn't looking likely—the Education Department would, indeed, have a new program to administer.

DeVos is rumored to have pushed to have a federal tax credit scholarship program included in the GOP tax-overhaul package unveiled this week. But it didn't happen. During a question and answer session after the speech, DeVos told Paul Peterson, a professor at Harvard's Graduation School of Education who has studied school choice for years, that there's "certainly hope" for a federal tax credit scholarship program, but the initiative can't create a new "bureaucracy."

After the speech, DeVos took some pretty loaded questions from the audience. 

One student wearing a Harvard sweatshirt asked, "So you're a billionaire with lots and lots of investments. And the school choice movement is a way for corporate interests to make money off the backs of students. How much do you expect your net worth to increase as a result of your policy choices?" 

Harvard's moderators told DeVos she didn't have to answer the question. But DeVos went ahead and said, "I've been involved with education choice for 30 years. 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."

Other questions were more even-handed, but equally emotional.

One former teacher who is now pursuing a both master's and a law degree at Harvard asked DeVos how teachers are supposed to keep kids safe when the Trump administration is repealing protections for transgender students, victims of sexual assault, and more:

DeVos told her she agrees "that one of the most important things we can do is make sure that students have a safe and nurturing learning environment." And she said the Education Department's office for civil rights will continue to address transgender students' complaints of discrimination.

And a parent, who had sent her kids to private, public, and charter schools told DeVos that most systems, "aren't working for black parents like me, they're not working for parents who aren't rich." She wanted to know what the secretary is going to do about that inequity and how she planned to set minimum standards to make sure schools are meeting students' needs. 

DeVos told her she wanted parents to be able take the dollars the school district, state, and federal government spends on her child's education and use them at whatever school she thinks is the best fit for her kid.

Other tidbits:

  • DeVos was asked by Peterson what she thought about so many state plans for Every Student Succeeds Act implementation embracing chronic absenteeism. "That's an interesting approach. I'm not sure that's the right approach or the best approach, but I'll withhold judgement and let's see what the state's results are," she said.
  • DeVos said the schools she saw on her recent "Rethink Schools" tour "were very focused on meeting the needs of specific kids. They were very open to say 'we're not for everybody' and 'we don't expect everybody to want to come here.' I think all schools should have that attitude." But she didn't mention  that traditional public school districts can't legally turn kids away just because they might do better another environment. 

Watch the full speech below: 

Protesters stand and hold signs and demonstrate during a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge Sept. 28. She did not interrupt her speech to address the protesters, but later took some pointed questions from the audience. Asked about protections for transgender student, DeVos said she is committed to making sure all students are safe. Earlier this year, she rescinded guidance that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms that matched their gender identity.

--Photo by Maria Danilova/AP.

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