Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies in March on Capitol Hill in Washington. She faced criticism from Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Jon Hazell during an event at Education Department headquarters. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met privately with the nation’s top teachers Monday and asked them to talk about the obstacles they face in doing their jobs. At least one of those teachers told DeVos that some of her policies are hurting public education.

“We have a problem where public money is siphoned off from the public schools and given to children who are going to charter and private schools,” Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Jon Hazell said.

DeVos’s response shocked him, he said.

“She immediately answered that it was her goal to redefine what education is and that she wants to call all of it public education,” said Hazell, a high school science teacher.

Hazell was among 50 teachers who were in Washington representing their states as teachers of the year. The visit from DeVos was a surprise.

Hazell said he told DeVos that funding for charter schools and private school vouchers had further strained his state’s education budget — which has seen some of the nation’s most dramatic cuts over the past decade.

He said he has watched those budgets shrink from year to year, and though his community has been shielded from the cuts thanks to a wealthy local tax base, his colleagues in virtually every other part of the state face enormous challenges. One friend, a superintendent, lamented that he could no longer afford art or music teachers. Oklahoma teachers are among the lowest-paid in the country, and some schools have taken extreme measures — moving to four-day weeks, for example — to make ends meet.

Hazell said DeVos defended her position on school choice, saying children need a way to leave failing schools.

“My point to her was you’re creating these bad schools when you’re taking money out of the public schools system,” he said.

Hazell said the exchange was “passionate” but respectful.

But other teachers reacted with similar shock and concern on hearing the nation’s top education official describe private schools as part of the public school system.

“One of the things that was so stark and memorable in that exchange was. … Secretary DeVos trying to redefine what the word ‘public’ is,” said Michael Soskil Sr., Pennsylvania’s teacher of the year. “It was almost like Orwellian doublespeak to me.”

Soskil shares Hazell’s concern about the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs, coming from a state where a robust charter school operation preceded a school district’s bankruptcy.

Asked to comment on the exchange, DeVos spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill reiterated the secretary’s position on school choice. “Secretary DeVos has always said education is an investment in students, not in schools or school systems, and public education is any education that serves the public,” Hill said in an email. “We should stop defining education by the word that comes before school and instead focus on the students the school serves. The secretary is focused on making sure that every child gets an education that meets his or her needs, no matter the setting.”

DeVos later repeated her criticism of teachers who walked off the job to press their demands for higher pay and education funding in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado. Hazell said she told Arizona Teacher of the Year Josh Meibos, whose colleagues had shut down schools for a third day to protest for more education funding: “I hope the teachers would not work out our grievances at the expense of the kids.”

DeVos, a billionaire who spent much of the past two decades campaigning to expand school choice in Michigan and other parts of the country, has faced criticism from teachers that she is out of touch with their day-to-day jobs, having never worked in or attended a public school. Teachers unions have panned her work, and she has accused unions and the teachers they represent of simply defending what she sees as a broken school system.

“They’ve made it clear that they care more about a system, one created in the 1800s, than they do about individual students,” DeVos said last year.

While Hazell said he walked out of the meeting disappointed, several other teachers gave the secretary credit for agreeing to speak with a crowd that might not give her the warmest reception. The teachers approached the experience much as they would advise their students to: with respect, an open mind and valuing all participants.

“It was very encouraging that she wanted to hear our voices,” Soskil said. “I hope that she can see our value as well as we can see hers and that we can use that to continue.”