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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visits Detroit Edison Public School Academy charter school Friday as part of her Back To School Tour. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

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Detroit — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the president supports the idea of educational freedom through choice, empowering parents and the notion of multiple career pathways to adult life after high school.

But there is one thing DeVos said President Donald Trump could do to help her as she seeks state support on these issues across the nation.

“He could talk about education more," DeVos told The Detroit News on Friday. "It’s not been the top two or three items that he has been focused on. There have been a few other things that have taken his attention.

"He knows and understands instinctively that opportunity is really achieved through access to whatever is the right education for each individual."

Officials from the White House didn't respond for comment Friday.

DeVos — a 61-year-old Republican from West Michigan known for her support for school choice, charter schools and school vouchers — came to Detroit on Friday to visit her first school in the city and urge Michigan and other states to offer more education freedom to families in the form of increased school choice.

DeVos told The News that charter schools are a great alternative for many different families and that Michigan once was a leader in establishing charter schools.

"But Michigan has actually fallen behind in many other states in terms of granting education freedom to the families that need it the most," DeVos told The News. "We’ve seen many families opt to send their children to charter schools across Michigan and including here in the city of Detroit. It's proven to be a good choice for many of them first all because they’ve chosen them."

DeVos is visiting multiple states to view the different ways schools are meeting the needs of students.

DeVos, who took office in February 2017, is urging states to establish policies to provide more education freedom and at the federal level to establish an Education Freedom Fund, a proposal for a $5 billion annual tax credit fund that individuals or corporations can contribute to as a 501(c)(3) in states that participate.

Michigan, which has a state ban on vouchers, needs to introduce more options for choice. DeVos wants to get rid of a constitutional ban on direct government aid to educational institutions that have a religious affiliation, know as Blaine amendments.

“There is choice for families who have economic means, but there is no choice for families who don’t,” DeVos said. “(Blaine amendments are) the last acceptable form of bigotry we've continued to allow to happen in this country.”

DeVos later spent the morning at Detroit Edison Public School Academy, which serves students from preschool through 12th grade. It is one of 55 charter schools in the city where 38,667 students attended last year. Another 50,000 students attend Detroit Public Schools Community district and thousands more attended charter and traditional public schools outside the city.

Asked about the hostility she has faced nationally and the Detroit teachers’ unions gathered outside the charter school she was visiting, DeVos said they do not bother her.

“I am focused on doing what is right for students, individual students. They are focused on protecting their system, protecting ‘what is’ at the expense of ‘what could be’ for kids,” DeVos said. “Their policies, their approach, has failed way too many kids, and it’s just inexcusable. And I don’t apologize one bit for continuing to fight for every kid in this country.”

DeVos toured third-grade, fifth-grade and high school robotics classes at Detroit Edison, a public charter school just outside of downtown, and interacted with students.

Makiah Shipp, 17, who attends the high school and aspires to attend the University of Michigan or Stanford University, said the opportunity to meet the education secretary “will definitely open up the eyes of students” at her school “and put ourselves on the map.”

“We need motivation being inner-city Detroit students. We don’t really have that,” Shipp said. “To have that opportunity to be face-to-face contact with her will really make us realize that we can do this, and we have motivation and we have supporters.”

But the education secretary didn’t interact with more than 20 protesters from the Detroit Federation of Teachers and a parent advocacy group, who heavily criticized her visit, outside of the school.

DeVos called the assertion from protesters and other critics of her leadership as contributing to the educational crisis “nonsense, first and foremost.”

“I think we all need to focus on doing what’s right for individual students,” she said. “If we answer those questions for students and on behalf of students, we’re going to make the right decisions all the time.”

When asked whether she and her education department would help underperforming schools, DeVos said, “schools that aren’t performing either need to get better or arguably they should go out of business.”

“Schools shouldn’t be funded. Students should be funded. Our focus needs to be what’s right for students,” DeVos said.

Molly Sweeney, the director of 482 Forward, an education advocacy group, was heavily critical of DeVos and her visit to the charter school and protested outside of it.

“She’s to blame for the funding crisis in Michigan,” Sweeney said. “And the work that she’s done here over the last 20 years is directly to blame for our $3.7 billion gap in school funding for suburban, urban and rural schools. And we’re here to say that she should fully fund schools on the national level and work in Michigan to fully fund our schools here.”

Michigan, DeVos said, “is behind every other state, frankly, in offering parents and families more choices and options, more freedom” and encouraged the state to reconsider its path.

But Lakia Wilson, the executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers who protested the DeVos visit, criticized that approach.

“Detroit exclusively has lived this story. We’ve seen it play out; we know how it ends,” Wilson said. “We’re watching it play out in cities across America where public schools are totally being neglected and more and more money are put into charter schools.”

Earlier Friday, DeVos said she would be open to visiting a DPSCD school and welcomes the opportunity to sit down and speak with its superintendent, Nikolai Vitti. DeVos said she did not request a meeting while she was in Detroit. 

Asked about the state control over Detroit Public Schools for more than a decade, DeVos said the district is doing better now that it's under local control.

This year, school children in the city scored a first in the five-year history of a statewide student exam when they improved their reading and math scores across all tested grades.

"Any top-down approach to anything around education has not worked. Top-down from the federal government has not worked. Top-down from the state government doesn't work," DeVos said.

"Top-down from many districts doesn't work. The notion of education freedom is that you have a lot of different options and opportunities that grow up to meet the needs of the community."

After three years on the job, DeVos said she has focused on returning as much power and control to the states as possible.

"It's evident in different ways like the implementation of ESSA (the state education plan required by every state)," she said. "There are many ways that the Department of Education could tinker around and provide guidance to states that really gets in their way. And we have intentionally not done that."

Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said on Friday that DeVos has broken promise after promise to Michigan students. 

“Instead of investing in public education, she has redirected money away from schools and made it easier for predatory for-profit colleges to take advantage of low-income students," Barnes said. "Even worse, her department has gutted critical student protections, leaving vulnerable students with fewer resources. “

On Sept. 6, DeVos' department ordered that Michigan State University pay a record $4.5 million fine to the federal government for its mishandling of Larry Nassar's decades of sexual abuse.

Missteps allowed Nassar to prey on hundreds of females under the guise of medical treatment, and his boss, William Strampel, a former dean of MSU's College of Osteopathic Medicine, to pressure students for sexual favors.

DeVos has called what happened at MSU "abhorrent." 

"We know systemically they were very deficient, and I think it was an appalling situation," DeVos said Friday of MSU and the Nassar scandal.

"Our resolution agreement speaks for itself. ... We need to have systems that are fair for all students and that are reliable for institutions and framework that will support that."

jchambers@detroitnews.com

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