Education Secretary Betsy DeVos encountered protesters Friday morning outside a D.C. middle school and found her way barred as she tried to enter through a side door, forcing her to retreat into a government vehicle as a man shouted “Shame!”
Eventually, DeVos made her way inside for an event starting at about 10 a.m. that included the D.C. schools chancellor and others. The event was closed to the media.
But the demonstration outside Jefferson Middle School Academy was a further sign that DeVos remains a polarizing figure in the education world days after she took office.
Shortly before noon, as DeVos’s tour appeared to be winding down, she appeared at the top of the steps outside Jefferson’s main door to make a brief statement to reporters. “It was really wonderful to visit this school, and I look forward to many visits of many great public schools both in D.C. and around the country,” she said.
She later released a statement: “I respect peaceful protest and I will not be deterred in executing the vital mission of the Department of Education,” she said. “No school door in America will be blocked from those seeking to help our nation’s school children.”
Before DeVos arrived, several dozen parents, activists and teachers union members gathered to show support for public schools.
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said the union was supporting teachers concerned about the visit. “We want to share the message that we love our public school system,” Davis told reporters. “Public education teachers believe that public education is the cornerstone, it’s the foundation of our society.”
A teacher from a D.C. charter school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, carried a sign that said “Ms. DeVos: Our children are not props.”
“Betsy DeVos does not represent our students or our families here in D.C.,” the teacher said. “She doesn’t have our best interests at heart.”
D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who took office Feb. 1, told reporters after the event that he and DeVos talked to teachers, students and administrators and had an opportunity to see Jefferson’s “dynamic classroom instruction.”
Wilson said he wanted to make sure DeVos knows that the district proudly serves all students, and he spoke to her about the importance of strengthening public schools. He also said he appreciated the protesters who spoke up on behalf of public schools.
“I think that one of the great things about our country is it provides opportunities for people to express themselves,” he said. “Our democratic republic only works with an educated populace, and public school systems serve everyone, educate everyone. I think it’s great that families come out and others come out and make sure we do everything we can to protect it. I say thank you to those folks who did that.”
The vast majority of protesters were peaceful. One was arrested for assaulting a police officer, according to a D.C. police spokeswoman. A handful were involved in blocking DeVos from entering Jefferson, while some others attempted to keep a government car from entering the street in front of the school. One of the protesters who blocked her from the door appeared in a video, circulated by Fox5DC, to have touched her. Police said they were investigating allegations that DeVos was assaulted. They did not say who made the allegations.
DeVos is a billionaire who has spent three decades lobbying for private school vouchers, charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools. She was one of President Trump’s most controversial Cabinet picks and barely won confirmation. Her supporters call her a bold reformer, while opponents fear she will seek to undermine public schools by funneling taxpayer funding to private and religious schools.
On Thursday, DeVos visited Howard University, a historically black university in the District that receives special support through federal appropriations every year. But the reception at Jefferson shows the difficulty DeVos faces in winning the trust and confidence of those who opposed her confirmation.
According to several staff members, teachers at the school were upset by her visit and planned to wear black to show their feelings.
One staff member at Jefferson said she and many of her colleagues are troubled by DeVos’s decades-long campaign to promote vouchers as a way to escape public schools, which the staff member said work hard to serve all students. She said she feared that the new education secretary would use Jefferson students — most of whom are African American and come from low-income families — for a photo op to burnish her image.
The staff member, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk to the media, said she was “horrified” when she heard that DeVos was coming to Jefferson.
During the Obama administration, D.C. public schools were frequent backdrops for Education Department events and appearances by the president and first lady. But that felt different, the staff member said. “Obama was not rooting against the very essence of what we are,” she said.
Another Jefferson staff member said she spent the first part of the week calling senators to urge them to vote against DeVos. It was surreal, she said, to know she was coming to visit. “I really fear for our students’ future and the future of our schools and communities,” she said. “Her belief in privatization without equal accountability leaves high-needs students behind.”
She said she hoped Jefferson would show DeVos how positive, loving and strong a public school can be, and that teachers care fiercely about their students. “It’s about letting her know that anybody seeking to jeopardize our students is going to have to go through us,” she said.
Jefferson, a few blocks from department headquarters, is five years into a turnaround effort and is often cited as an example of the systemwide improvements in the city’s public schools.
D.C. Public Schools was once among the nation’s lowest-performing urban school districts, but in recent years it has won widespread attention for making rapid progress, as judged by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The District has been a laboratory for the philosophy of choice in education, in part because of its status as a federal district over which the U.S. government exercises great influence. The growing charter school sector — which exists because of legislation Congress passed in 1995 — now enrolls nearly half the city’s public school students, and the nation’s only federally funded voucher program, created by Congress in 2004, helps more than 1,000 children attend private and religious schools at taxpayer expense.
While many advocates believe that the competition has been fruitful, providing families with options and encouraging the school system to improve, others argue that the rapid growth of charter schools has undermined efforts to improve neighborhood schools and left parents scrambling to win citywide enrollment lotteries.
Lyndsey Medsker, the parent of two students at Brent Elementary, which feeds into Jefferson, said that it was the “perfect place for the new secretary to see first-hand a public school that fell victim to the chaos of charters and a fervor for school choice.”
“Today, thanks to a dedicated administration, impressive teaching staff and community support, the school is rapidly improving,” Medsker said. “But, to make public schools like Jefferson ‘great again,’ if you will, they need a commitment from Secretary DeVos and support from D.C.’s mayor and city leadership. It’s time for all politicians to stop using quality schools as photo ops and to really invest in neighborhood public schools.”
Medsker did not plan to join the crowd because she didn’t want to appear to be protesting DeVos. She said now that DeVos is confirmed, she should be welcomed into public schools so she can learn why they are important and deserving of her support.