In a hotel ballroom in Bellevue on Friday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called on Washington residents to fight for more school choice. Inside the Hyatt Regency, she spoke to an appreciative audience of 1,500 people, with roughly an equal number of protesters in the streets outside.
DeVos, the keynote speaker at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner, said she was against a “one-size-fits-all federal government mandate” and wants to give parents more options for where they can send their children to school.
“States are different, families are dynamic and children are unique,” she said to applause. “What choice looks like for one family here in Washington will be different from what a family in Oregon decides. In fact, what choice looks like for one child may be different than what it looks like for his or her own sibling.”
Outside, speakers railed against DeVos and her ideas. Elected leaders, including Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Bellevue Mayor John Stokes, told protesters that DeVos’ policies aren’t welcome in this state.
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“Being a billionaire, right-wing donor should not give you license to take a sledgehammer to the foundation of equal opportunity,” said Constantine. “No, it should not, but here she is,” he said, referring to DeVos. The crowd responded with boos.
Lois Cushnie, a former college teacher from California, brought a report card to the rally grading DeVos’s first semester in office.
“She earned all Fs,” Cushnie, 68, said. “She’s not doing too well, that’s for sure. We need to get some good teachers in there to teach her a few things.”
The protest appeared to be the largest since DeVos took office in February, but it was far from the first. In many of her appearances, she has been met with dozens and sometimes hundreds of people opposed to her views.
In Washington, the people who organized Friday’s protest said DeVos is a threat to public education, given her support of vouchers (which allow students to use public money to attend private or parochial schools) and charter schools.
DeVos has championed charter schools run by for-profit operators in her home stage of Michigan as well as voucher systems. (Washington state doesn’t have a voucher system, and its charter-school law doesn’t allow for-profit operators.)
Sharonne Navas of the Equity in Education Coalition said the protest, which she organized, helped unify groups of educators and public-education advocates who may not have otherwise come together.
“This is the outcry Washington has been waiting for,” she said.People from nearly 30 organizations, along with public-school teachers and families, attended the rally, with some protesters coming from as far away as Olympia and Covington.
About a dozen counterprotesters, organized by the Washington State Republican Party, also gathered outside. The group said it wanted to support charter-school students.
Some charter-school families, however, took part in the larger protest, saying they don’t support DeVos’ stances on voucher programs.
The size of the protest prompted the Bellevue Police Department to close two blocks of Bellevue Way Northeast to vehicles. Security at the hotel was tight; police officers stood inside and outside the building and no one was allowed inside the event space without a name tag.
Earlier this week, leaders of the Washington Policy Center, which calls itself a free-market think tank, said they don’t agree with everything DeVos says, but they wanted to hear her ideas on how to improve the nation’s schools.
Liv Finne, the center’s education director, wrote in a blog post this week that the center supports “free speech and the respectful exchange of ideas.”
“We believe all families that are underserved by traditional public schools should be allowed free, publicly-funded choices that give their children access to a high-quality education,” Finne wrote.
In her Friday speech, DeVos didn’t stray much from her prepared remarks.
DeVos compared education to food, saying that “like education, we all need food to grow and thrive,” but not everyone likes the same thing at the same time. She told a story about food trucks that line the streets near the Department of Education.
“Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?” she said. “No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at that time.”
One passage that received an enthusiastic round of applause came just before she concluded.
“We owe it to America’s students to rethink school because they deserve a better education and a chance at a better life,” DeVos said.
“America is too great a country to deny any parent any option, and it is too great to deny any student an equal opportunity to pursue a great education.”
Tacoma parent Ami Lara introduced DeVos to a standing ovation. And before the program, Lara and her daughter, Dorah, shared a message for the protesters outside.
“Public schools are great for a lot of students. They weren’t for my child,” Lara said.
A daughter and granddaughter of public-school teachers, Lara said it was hard to watch Dorah struggle in a traditional elementary school in Tacoma.
“Everything just kind of went downhill,” Lara said. “She didn’t want to go to school. Every morning was a fight and tears, for both of us.”
So when Dorah started the sixth grade, Lara transferred her to the charter Destiny Middle School — where Dorah said the small class sizes and one-on-one attention from teachers have helped her thrive.
And, with her hand on Dorah’s shoulder, Lara dismissed the concern that charter schools do not accept special education students, like her own.
After DeVos addressed the main audience, she made a brief and unannounced appearance at a separate dinner for young professionals.
A spokesman for the Washington Policy Center said DeVos had been scheduled to take questions from the younger crowd. But after speaking for about 30 seconds, she left the stage and room.
Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto also spoke at the sold-out gala, one of several annual events that bring in more than $1 million for the Washington Policy Center each year. His speech was closed to the media.
DeVos usually visits schools when she has a speaking engagement outside of Washington, D.C., but didn’t publicly announce any visits to schools in Washington state on Friday.
She visited a high school in McMinnville, Oregon, on Wednesday and a middle school in Milpitas, California, on Thursday.