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DeVos: Fight ‘establishment’ on college campuses

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Oxon Hill, Maryland — Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a conservative conference Thursday that the fight against the education establishment should be waged not only in K-12 schools but on college campuses, where faculty tell students what to do, say and “more ominously, what to think.”

“They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community,” said DeVos, a Grand Rapids area school choice advocate. “But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”

In a brief on-stage interview, she gave college students advice about what to do when their voices are silenced.

“Don’t shut up. Keep talking. Keep making your arguments,” DeVos said. “You can do so respectfully and with civility, but I think you need to do so with confidence.”

Devos spoke at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, attacking the education establishment for “blocking the doorway to reforms, fixes and improvements for a generation.”

“This is not a left or right issue. This is an American issue. We need education to work for every child,” she said.

DeVos said she took the job as education chief to return “power in education” to parents, communities and states.

“We can do this, but only with your help,” DeVos told the crowd. “Defenders of the status quo will stop at nothing to protect their special interests and their gig. So we need you to engage, to be loud and to never stop fighting for what we believe.”

Devos also made her case for allowing parents to choose the best school for their children, saying there’s a “unique window of opportunity” to bring school choice to millions of families.

Her comments came amid reports that the Trump administration is considering a federal tax credit scholarship program of up to $20 billion that would help lower-income families send their kids to private schools.

School visits

DeVos dismissed media coverage critical of her performance, saying “my job isn’t to win a popularity contest.”

She lamented how U.S. test scores have “flat-lined” and that 1.3 million kids a year drop out of school. She also took aim at what she called a failure of the Obama administration — spending $7 billion on school-improvement grants “thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem.”

“Yet their own report, issued as they walked out the door, showed that it had zero impact on student outcomes and performance,” she said.

“This is not an indictment of teachers. We all know good public school teachers. My mom was one. Good teachers make a real difference. Good teachers deserve to be honored and compensated accordingly.”

DeVos was interviewed on stage by Trump surrogate and CNN commentator Kayleigh McEnany, who asked DeVos about a call she made on her second day to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Teachers unions led the opposition to DeVos’ nomination, arguing she would undermine the public school system to promote charter schools or taxpayer-funded vouchers for private education. Another teachers union, the National Education Association, has said there will be “no relationship” with DeVos.

“I think it’s imperative to find common ground. If students represent 100 percent of our future, we need to be focused on what’s right for them,” DeVos said, describing the conversation with Weingarten as “great.”

DeVos said she and Weingarten agreed to visit schools together: Weingarten will take DeVos to a traditional public school, and DeVos will take Weingarten to a non-traditional “choice” school.

Regarding their call, Weingarten told The New Republic she is committed to engaging with the education secretary, so DeVos has no excuse to ignore her causes.

“So glad to hear her say our convo where I made the case 4 public ed was great -You know what is not great....” Weingarten tweeted in response to DeVos’ remarks. “Vouchers -they don’t work! (You don’t have to take my word for it, Betsy, just look at the overwhelming body of research on the topic).”

Transgender policy

DeVos defended the rollback this week of Obama-era guidance for public schools that had allowed transgender students to use bathrooms or locker rooms of their chosen gender.

In a joint letter to schools Wednesday, the Justice and Education departments said the earlier guidance had “given rise to significant litigation regarding school restrooms and locker rooms.”

“This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach to suggest a one-size-fits-all, federal government, top-down approach to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level, at a local level,” DeVos told McEnany.

“I have made clear from the moment I’ve been in this job that it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can. And also to provide students, parents and teachers with more flexibility with how education is delivered and how education is experienced, and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”

DeVos did not address reports that she initially opposed the change over concerns for how it could harm transgender students. The New York Times reported that she dropped her initial objections after Trump sided with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Wednesday denied any disagreement on the issue between the cabinet members, saying DeVos was 100 percent behind the decision.

Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, criticized DeVos for letting the change to go forward.

“It is one thing to be ignorant of the impact of your decisions on the lives of kids; it’s another to be fully aware of how awful they would be and still allow them to happen anyway,” Murray said in a statement.

“We need leaders who will stand up and fight for the safety and protection of children, not ones who will buckle under pressure.”

The Department of Education declined to comment on Murray’s remarks. In a Wednesday statement, DeVos noted that anti-bullying protections would not be affected by the policy change.

“We owe all students a commitment to ensure they have access to a learning environment that is free of discrimination, bullying and harassment,” she said.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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