While attending a robotics competition in her home state of Michigan this past week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was asked by a reporter if she had plans to visit some of the struggling schools in the area — the same question that journalist Lesley Stahl asked her during a “60 Minutes” interview a month ago. Her answer then — “Maybe I should” — was highly criticized.
Her answer Friday was more resolute. “I’m not making any school visits today,” DeVos told WDIV Local 4 News reporter Priya Mann, who asked if DeVos would visit Detroit public schools, some of which weren’t far from where the event was taking place.
Mann went on to ask another question, at which point a staffer interjected and said DeVos will answer more questions later.
DeVos spent that afternoon at the 2018 FIRST Robotics World Championship at the Cobo Center in Detroit, home to many of the state’s lowest-performing schools. She chatted with students, including a group of Girl Scouts, asked them questions about their creations, and even took pictures using a phone she was carrying.
She spent a lot of time with students from Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich., but media reports also say she did not answer reporters’ questions about the current state of education in Michigan, where more than three dozen schools, the majority of which were in Detroit, faced threats of closure last year because of low test scores. Dozens more Detroit schools were later added to the list of underperforming schools.
Department of Education spokesman Nathan Bailey in an email Saturday said DeVos was “interacting with students and hearing their presentation” when Mann “interrupted and started asking questions.”
“That’s why she was told there would be more time to ask questions later,” Bailey said. “There is no story here. We have addressed this with the station that ran it.”
Bailey did not respond to a question about whether there are any plans to visit struggling schools in Michigan or elsewhere.
Before becoming education secretary, DeVos was best known as an advocate of privatizing public education in Michigan. She once described the country’s public education system as a “monopoly” and a “dead end.”
A former chairwoman of the state Republican Party in Michigan, she was chair of the pro-school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children. She pushed for school voucher legislation in the state capitol, and she was a proponent of charter schools.
Critics say those efforts have diverted money away from Michigan’s public school systems, while not improving education. Most of the charter schools have recorded student test scores in reading and math below the state average.
The DeVos family are billionaires who have spent millions of dollars in lobbying efforts in support of school privatization. Despite concerns of conflicts of interest, President Trump nominated her to lead the Education Department, and she was confirmed only after Vice President Pence cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
Last month, DeVos stumbled during a “60 Minutes” interview in which she said she has not “intentionally visited schools that are underperforming” and conceded that “maybe” she “should” do so.
Stahl also challenged DeVos’s notion that there have been no improvement in public education despite billions of dollars in federal investment. Stahl pointed out that test scores have gone up in the past 25 years, though there’s much room for improvement.
DeVos seemed to struggle answering questions about education in Michigan. Here’s part of the exchange:
DEVOS: … Studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually — the results get better, as well.
STAHL: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.
DEVOS: Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.
STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?
DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall, I — I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.
STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.
DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this — the students are doing well and —
STAHL: No, but your argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan, where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.
DEVOS: I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.
STAHL: The public schools here are doing worse than they did.
DEVOS: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.
Liz Hill, DeVos’s spokeswoman, told Education Week that “60 Minutes” did not air “lengthy and substantive policy discussion” that DeVos had with Stahl and, instead, chose only “highly edited” portions of the interview “to perpetuate a false narrative about her work.”
Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.