By Amanda Litvinov
In her remarks at the 72nd Education Writers Association Conference in Baltimore on Monday, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos took pot shots at educators while she talked up her anti-public education agenda.
In the past, DeVos turned down the invitation to speak at the event.
This year, she used the occasion to justify her efforts to undermine public education. She also managed to avoid answering the toughest questions, including some about her decision to rescind policies meant to protect students’ civil rights.
Here are four telling moments from the event:
1. DeVos claimed that tax credit programs such as her $5 billion “Education Freedom Scholarship” proposal are not voucher plans.
It’s a favorite tactic of the privatization movement: attempting to re-brand a voucher plan using a new name and a slightly different mechanism for accessing taxpayer money. But whether they’re called “Education Saving Accounts,” “Tuition Tax Credits” or “Freedom Scholarships,” the result is always the same: All of these schemes direct taxpayer dollars to private schools, leaving less money for public schools.
Under such a plan, individuals and companies earn tax credits by donating money to nonprofit scholarship funds. Students then can use the funds to attend private schools, including religious schools.
DeVos’ tax credit proposal is worse than similar ones already on the books in 17 states. That’s because it gives a dollar-for-dollar credit, meaning that every dollar given takes a dollar off the donor’s tax bill.
DeVos defended it again during her on-stage interview with New York Times reporter Erica L. Green, who noted that even some Republicans have voiced their reservations. DeVos claimed her proposal “is not going to take anything away from anyone or anywhere.”
That is simply false. Tax credit vouchers will drain public funding from public schools. Under these plans, potential taxes are never paid, which in turn decreases the overall amount in the coffers. This makes less money available for public schools, where 90 percent of students go.
2. DeVos said “there is no such thing as public money.”
There’s a reason that DeVos and her supporters would like to eradicate the term “public money.” That’s shorthand for the tax dollars that the government collects to pay for schools and roads and hospitals—the things that should benefit everyone.
DeVos said there is no public money, only money earned by individuals. That’s an attempt to suppress the idea that we all kick in to pay for a system that promotes the common good. The idea is, “Hey, that’s my money, I should get to decide where it goes.”
It’s all part of the attempt by those who want to privatize education to justify a system where individuals can direct taxpayer money to private schools that are entirely unaccountable to the public, including religious schools.
3. DeVos avoided answering questions about her decision to roll back guidance on school discipline.
It took some serious bobbing and weaving, but Betsy DeVos avoided answering questions about how rolling back guidelines designed to make school discipline policies more fair for students of color would in any way make schools safer.
The backstory: In December 2018, President Trump appointed DeVos to head up the Federal Commission on School Safety following the horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on February 14, 2018. The following December, the Trump administration released the report from the Federal Commission on School Safety to address gun violence in schools.
The report recommends stripping protections that seek to prevent racial disparities in student discipline. These guidelines were put into place to address the wide racial gap in school suspensions and expulsions.
Green asked repeatedly for DeVos to explain the connection between what happened in Parkland and the discipline guidance several times. Here is part of DeVos said:
“Well, I think it’s important to remember that the commission was established to study school safety. It was in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy, but it wasn’t a focus on Parkland. It was really to talk about ways that educators and community should and may consider how to make sure that students are safe when they go to school, that teachers are safe when they go to school, and how to prevent these things in the future. Not to always be in the place of reacting to them.”
Finally, DeVos claimed that tying the report and the rollback together was inaccurate, that they had been separate efforts all along.
4. DeVos accused educators of “hurting kids” when they marched for investments to improve schools
Over the past year-and-a-half, educators have walked out, rallied, gone on strike, and protested under the #RedForEd banner to demand that state and local policymakers address their pleas for more investment in their schools and fair pay for educators. DeVos claimed educators are “hurting kids in the process” by being out of the classroom. She admonished educators, saying they should have “adult disagreements on adult time.”
This theme would come up again later at the conference, at a panel discussion on the teacher walkouts.
During that session, Shavar Jeffries of Democrats for Education Reform, which supports more charter schools, said that unions would have the public believe that walking out is the only lever they have to pull. Jeffries said educators should exhaust every lever before leaving the school or classroom to protest.
Dov Rosenberg, a veteran educator and union activist from Durham, N.C., responded that political action isn’t harming students when the whole point of a walkout is to improve students learning.
“It is the last lever,” said Rosenberg. “We tried phone banks, letters to representatives, and supporting legislation that would increase funding, and it didn’t work. We have to use what power we have, and the most power we have is our labor. We are furious that our students are forced to learn in the miserable conditions we are required to work.”
Access a video and a transcript of DeVos’ appearance at the Education Writers Association Conference on Education Week’s Policy K-12 blog.