CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced student protesters Thursday night at Harvard University, where she laid out her belief that school choice — including allowing taxpayer dollars to follow children to private schools — is the solution to many of the problems that beset public schools.
In cutting rhetoric, she assailed teachers unions and those who have spoken out against her policies.
“The union bosses made it clear: They care more about a system — one that was created in the 1800s — than they do about students. Their focus is on school buildings instead of school kids. Isn’t education supposed to be all about kids?” DeVos said. “Education is an investment in individual students, and that’s why funding and focus should follow the student, not the other way around.”
In the middle of her address, several students — one by one — raised their fists in protest and began to unfurl banners emblazoned with messages written in red lettering on white bedsheets: “WHITE SUPREMACIST,” “EDUCATIONAL JUSTICE IS RACIAL JUSTICE,” “PROTECT SURVIVORS’ RIGHTS.”
DeVos pressed on uninterrupted as the students continued to stand. She talked about how the United States ranks “middle, average” compared to other nations.
“So what do we do? What does the future hold? More funding?” DeVos asked rhetorically.
“Yes!” an audience member interjected, to the applause and laughter of other attendees.
The event was her second of the day at a college campus, and the second time the education secretary faced angry protesters. At George Washington University earlier Thursday, a small group of protesters gathered, voicing their support for transgender students and victims of sexual assault before an appearance by the secretary, who was at the school for an event with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and former NBA star Yao Ming.
“We’re here to show up for survivors of sexual violence and for transgender students who are being harmed by her policies,” said Eve Zhurbinskiy, a 21-year-old George Washington senior. “And we’re here to advocate and hold her accountable for a stronger Title IX.”
The whirlwind day of events underscored the polarizing nature of DeVos’s seven-month tenure. Her support for alternatives to traditional public schools — and her occasional derision of them — has inflamed their supporters, who worry her policies could wreak havoc on traditional public schools that serve the vast majority of schoolchildren. More recently, she moved to pull back Obama-era guidance that outlined how schools should investigate sexual assault, angering many victims and their advocates.
DeVos was at George Washington for an event with officials from the United States and China, not something related to the anti-discrimination law known as Title IX or campus sexual assault concerns.
“We both want to create high-quality education options, ones that prepare our children for success in their personal and professional lives,” DeVos said. “In the U.S., we are proud of what many students achieve, and the great work of many teachers to help them do so. But we recognize we are not first in the world in our students’ academic achievement, and there is much we can learn from other nations, including China.”
At Harvard, about 300 protesters packed the sidewalks outside the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, raising issues about DeVos’s civil rights record and her support for charter schools. Massachusetts last year endured a bruising school choice fight as voters went to the polls to decide whether the state should allow more charter schools to form. It was the most expensive ballot initiative in the state’s history. The charter school expansion initiative was trounced.
Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, a mayoral candidate, joined protesters outside, touting the state’s highly ranked public school system.
“Don’t come here and tell us what to do,” Jackson said. “I want you to know, Betsy DeVos, we are not buying what you’re selling.”
Sexual assault survivors and their advocates also showed up in force.
“I’m protesting because I have seen firsthand that sexual violence routinely pushes survivors out of schools,” said Sejal Singh, a 24-year-old law student. Singh is an activist with Know Your IX, an advocacy group that works on issued related to campus gender violence. Singh believes DeVos has not done enough to hear from survivors of sexual assault. “If she’s not going to take time to listen to survivors and advocates, then we’re going to have to come to her,” Singh said.
Their muffled shouts and chants could be heard inside the building.
More than 100 students and community members gathered to hear DeVos speak, garnering highly sought-after tickets through an online lottery.
David Cullinane, a public policy student from Ireland, was intrigued to hear the secretary speak because her appointment generated so many headlines.
“She’s seen as very divisive,” said Cullinane, who said he watched clips of her confirmation hearing on Irish television in February.
After DeVos spoke, audience members were invited to ask questions. They pressed her on a variety of issues: her record of backing and bankrolling charter school systems in Michigan that, by some measures, have failed; her decision to roll back protections for transgender students seeking to use school bathrooms aligned with their gender identity; the administration’s most recent decision to change guidance around sexual assault investigations.
She defended those moves, saying her department still investigates claims of discrimination against transgender students and that the administration needs to reexamine how schools handle sexual assault investigations to balance the rights of victims with the accused.
“It’s not an issue that we’re going to be sweeping under the rug or putting into the backroom of a college administration building,” DeVos said. “One sexual assault is one too many. By the same token, one student that is denied due process is one too many, so we need to ensure that that policy and that framework is fair to all students, all students.”
Other students assailed DeVos for her wealth and connections. DeVos, a billionaire who funneled much of her wealth into pushing school choice, has also invested in online charter schools.
“You’re a billionaire with lots of investments,” said Jeff Rousset, a graduate student at the Kennedy School. “How much do you expect your net worth to increase as a result of your policy choices?” he asked, as the crowd gasped. “And what are your friends on Wall Street . . . saying about the potential to get rich off of the backs of students?”
“I’ve been involved with educational choice for 30 years,” DeVos shot back. “I have written lots of checks to give parents and students lots of options to go to the school of their choice. The balance on my income has gone very much the other way and will continue to do so.”
“I am committed to ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to get the right education.”
Karen Weintraub contributed to this report.