U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos defended her push to expand charter and voucher schools before a conservative audience in Denver on Thursday.
Her remarks followed a day of protests during which public school proponents, led by teachers unions, held a rally and marched against DeVos’ policies.
“Our opponents, defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos said at the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, annual meeting, which included mostly Republican lawmakers and policy leaders from around the country.
ALEC has long supported school choice programs, including controversial vouchers. Charter schools have gained a bit more bipartisan support, especially in Colorado, where Democrats also supported efforts this year in the legislature to share funding equally between charter and traditional public schools.
Opponents claim that so-called “school choice” efforts aim at diminishing public schools to the disadvantage of low-income and minority communities. But DeVos called that “patently false.”
“My focus … has really been to help those who are least empowered, those who can’t move, those who can’t afford to pay tuitions, to have the same choices that I and my husband had for our children,” DeVos said.
During her speech, DeVos displayed a Tweet from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, which said, “@BetsyDeVosED says public $ should invest in indiv students. NO we should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.”
.@BetsyDeVosED says public $ should invest in indiv students. NO we should invest in a system of great public schools for all kids.
— AFT (@AFTunion) July 10, 2017
DeVos responded, “They’ve made it clear that they care more about a system, one that was created in the 1800s, than they care about individual students.”
The education secretary went on to point out that school choice efforts appear to be gaining momentum, as 40 legislative chambers in 23 states have passed bills expanding options. She added that the movement must be led by the states.
“Those closest to the students know best,” DeVos said. “Parents know best what learning environment is right for their child, and teachers know best how kids will succeed in their classroom. But the bottom line is that neither our parents nor our teachers are empowered.”
She went on to defend President Trump, who signed an executive order to review national education regulations.
“President Trump is determined to place power back in the hands of people,” DeVos said.
She noted that much of the protest around the conference had to do with ALEC itself, joking, “You’re certainly no strangers to organized protests by defenders of the status quo, but I think it’s the first time in recent history I’ve been to an event where the protesters aren’t necessarily here just for me.”
Of ALEC, DeVos said, “You’ve played the long game; we’ve all benefited from this patient approach.”