Betsy DeVos vs. Connecticut: State and School Leaders Skewer Her ‘Dangerous Daycare’ Remarks

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, left, joined by Education Department Budget Service Director Erica Navarro, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, left, joined by Education Department Budget Service Director Erica Navarro, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 24, 2017 Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Angry responses percolated over the Memorial Day weekend and erupted Tuesday in public protest.

In her testimony on Capitol Hill last week in support of President Trump’s budget proposal, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos attempted to make a point about the benefits of school choice policies, but she did it at the expense of East Hartford High School in Connecticut—a school she had never visited—shocking and insulting local students, teachers, parents as well as state officials.

Angry responses percolated over the Memorial Day weekend and erupted Tuesday in public protest.

In a published letter to DeVos, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said the Education secretary had unfairly maligned the school and the East Hartford Public Schools district. He offered to personally pay for her to visit and take a tour of the school she had placed at the center of her testimony. He said she should see for herself the positive impact being made by the state’s “groundbreaking reforms and historic investments” in education.

In a statement, Annie Irvine, president of the East Hartford Education Association teachers union, characterized DeVos as an education policy dilettante, calling her “totally unqualified to represent the nation’s public education system.”

At a rally outside the high school Tuesday morning, Irvine told protesters that DeVos had “messed with the wrong district.”

The protest rally at the school attracted some hundred people, according to reports. Afterward Gov. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman held a news conference on the DeVos testimony.   

Students at the high school seemed baffled that the Education secretary seemed to be casting aspersions on their school.

"Betsy DeVos has never even seen our school," junior Tasnim Islam told WVIT-TV, a NBC affiliate in Hartford.

“I would really like for her to come and see exactly what East Hartford High School is like," student Jadah Daley said.

Islam and Daley took their lead from the governor. They joined with three other students to pen a letter to DeVos saying she had belittled their hard work and devalued their education experiences and successes. They wrote that they would like to explain to her the way their “experiences in public schools have shaped who they are” and “discuss the numerous opportunities, programs, and benefits students at East Hartford High School receive.”

They wrote that the school had “transformed” in recent years and that the anecdote DeVos shared with members of Congress and the nation simply didn’t apply.

In testimony delivered last Wednesday to an education subcommittee in support of the Trump administration budget proposal, DeVos said she “had recently met a young man” she identified only as “Michael ... who grew up in East Hartford, Connecticut, in a low-income neighborhood.” She said Michael told her his time at East Hartford High was a sort of “Lord of the Flies” experience, where unruly and bullying students ran the show, where teachers were intimidated and defeated in their efforts to school the children.

“He described the school he was assigned to as, and I quote, ‘nothing more than adult day care ... a dangerous daycare,’ DeVos told the subcommittee. “…The school simply passed him along from year-to-year, giving him Ds and sending the not-so-subtle message that they didn't think Michael would amount to much. Michael got a diploma, but not an education.”

It was the kind of story that well supports a narrative promoted by DeVos and many similar conservative school reformers that argues that public schools have failed students and that it’s time to offer more private school options to low-income students through tuition voucher programs paid for out of public education budgets.

But the Trump administration is proposing to cut 13.5 percent of the education department’s budget—about $9 billion—so DeVos’s testimony was bound to be controversial, even if it had not included an unflattering reference to a school with which DeVos was clearly unfamiliar.

After President Trump announced DeVos as his choice to head the nation’s public education system, detractors underlined her lack of experience with public education. They argued that DeVos had never attended a public school and never taught at a public school and that her main experience with public education was her experience as a wealthy proponent of private school vouchers and for-profit charter schools who headed reform efforts in Detroit that, they said, undercut the public school system.

Indeed, during Senate confirmation hearings on her nomination, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, former superintendent of the Denver Public School System, was deeply critical of her work in Detroit. He encouraged DeVos to visit Denver where she might explore a school choice and charter school system that he said was a better fit with the mission of the nation’s public schools than the one promoted by DeVos in Michigan. He touted Denver’s system as one where charter schools were made to accept diverse applicants and submit to the public system’s accountability standards.

“Without exception, we demanded quality and implemented strong accountability, and as far I can tell, Detroit has followed the opposite path,” Bennet told her.

DeVos also this week was the subject of a report by The Intercept that suggested her support for for-profit education institutions might be tied to the “calamitous commencement speech” she delivered earlier this month at historically black Bethune-Cookman University.

Reporter Zaid Jilani noted that the unimpressed Bethune-Cookman students unsurprisingly heckled and booed DeVos and turned their backs as she delivered her remarks, but that the university may have been less concerned with the reception she might receive from students than with courting her favor through the invitation to speak.

Jilani explained that, in March, Bethune-Cookman had entered into a relationship with for-profit Arizona Summit Law School, which depends heavily on the ability of students to pay tuition with federally guaranteed student loans—a finance system now overseen by DeVos.

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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