When U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos arrived June 26 at James Irwin Charter School to speak at Parents Challenge’s 20th anniversary celebration, she probably wasn’t surprised to be greeted by more than 100 sign carriers and slogan chanters.
Parents Challenge, founded by local developer and longtime school choice advocate Steve Schuck and his wife, Joyce, provides funds to enable parents to enroll their students in the private or public school of their choice, and gives them information, personal resources and support to make the choice.
DeVos’ views coincide with that mission. She has made school choice — which she prefers to call education freedom — a centerpiece of her work as education secretary.
The 400 by-invitation-only attendees at the Parents Challenge event — and perhaps DeVos herself — passed through a gauntlet of passionate protesters clustered around the intersection of Powers and Astrozon boulevards.
Chanting, “Down, down with corporations; up, up with education” and “Education is a right; that is why we have to fight,” they carried signs that didn’t mince words: “Toss DeVos” and “Betsy is bad for children,” read some of the milder ones. Other posters sported coarser language and images.
Organized by the Pikes Peak Education Association and Colorado Education Association, the group included educators, parents and students from across the state.
“Our biggest issue is with her agenda of taking money and moving to defund public education and promote charters and voucher systems,” says Phyllis Robinette, president of Pikes Peak Education Association and a second-grade teacher in Lewis-Palmer District 38.
“We continue to see our students impacted each and every day because of the lower funding we’re receiving,” Robinette says. “My school is affected by cutting our funds, which lessens the services we can give.”
Grant Langdon, a School to Work Alliance Program specialist for School District 11, noted DeVos often picks charter schools for her appearances.
The rally attracted several candidates running for local offices.
Randi McCallian, running for the state Senate District 10 seat in northeast Colorado Springs, thinks DeVos is pushing to defund public schools.
“We’ve seen some examples around the country of when school districts lost money to charter schools, and it really impacts the children in the public education system and the teachers that are losing money to those private schools that are trying to make a profit off education,” McCallian says. “There should be no profit off education.”
Jillian Freeland, challenging Rep. Doug Lamborn for his U.S. House District 5 seat, says DeVos “is not an educator … and so many of her decisions have just been against the needs of what our educators and students need. By using voucher systems to pull money out of our public school systems, we’re weakening them.”
(It should be noted that charter schools are public schools and Colorado does not issue vouchers.)
The protesters were loud and visible, but they were kept far away from the cordoned-off VIP parking area and the event itself. The VIPs, including Mayor John Suthers and Republican luminaries, lunched privately with DeVos before making their way to the school gym for the celebration.
Tables for Parents Challenge supporters filled the gym floor. The press was confined to a small area in the bleachers at the back of the facility, marked off by red tape.
In welcoming remarks, Suthers sounded a theme that would be reiterated by other speakers including DeVos: “Education is not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
“Here in Colorado Springs we are privileged to have many excellent options for families as they look to prepare their children for the future,” said Suthers, himself a graduate of St. Mary’s High School. “Regardless of whether parents choose one of the nine traditional public school districts in our region, or a private, parochial, charter, magnet, innovation, online or home school, this diversity of opportunity is essential to develop our future productive citizens.”
Introducing DeVos, Schuck said he and his wife have worked with the education secretary and have been friends with the DeVoses for many years.
“They have a lifelong dedication to providing quality education for all kids,” Schuck said. “Betsy is bright, thoughtful, strategic, courageous, focused. But you will never see in the news what those of us who know her and what we admire in her — her extraordinary generosity, humanity, compassion and concern for those less fortunate.
“It’s often said that one is best defined by his or her critics and adversaries. Betsy has a blue-ribbon list of those. … U.S. senators, teachers union spokespeople, a few of whom you drove past this morning, and media talking heads. But those naysayers don’t hold a candle to the fans, supporters and admirers, 400 of whom are in this room today.”
Speaking to the receptive crowd, DeVos and Parents Challenge Executive Director Deborah Hendrix sought to dispel the notion that education freedom is about promoting private over public schools. “We’re not against public schools,” Hendrix said. “We just want to make it clear we’re for the freedom to choose. We want parents to understand that it is your decision, and there are so many choices.”
DeVos urged parents and choice advocates to support her Education Freedom Scholarships proposal, calling it “the biggest, boldest plan yet for students.”
Legislation to implement the tax credit to fund scholarships to private schools and other programs has been introduced in both houses of Congress, and DeVos said it could yield $60 million in additional funding for “students and scholarships, not buildings,” in Colorado.
“I believe education freedom is the most meaningful way we can improve achievement in this country,” she said. “Our proposal isn’t about pitting one type of school against another. It’s about empowering parents and families to make choices previously available only to the wealthy, the powerful and the well connected… This will be a game-changer.”
Colorado Education Association Vice President and D-11 social studies teacher Kevin Vick disagreed. “Betsy DeVos and her corporate agenda are bad for students, bad for public education,” Vick said. “Her harmful education policies are not welcome in Colorado.”