Betsy DeVos visited Denver twice in 2017. Here’s how the education secretary’s tenure has made a mark in Colorado

Betsy DeVos’s tenure as education secretary has been anything but ordinary.
3 min. read
Betsy DeVos, center, at Denver’s Firefly Autism House. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Betsy DeVos, center, at Denver's Firefly Autism House. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Eric GorskiChalkbeat

Betsy DeVos’s tenure as education secretary has been anything but ordinary.

The Michigan billionaire and private school voucher champion has drawn no shortage of attention and controversy since the moment President Trump nominated her to the nation’s education bully pulpit.

DeVos has visited Colorado twice since her confirmation. But even from afar, she’s loomed large over the state’s education policy and politics — including during November’s local school board elections.

Democratic U.S. Sen Michael Bennet of Colorado sharply questioned DeVos during her confirmation hearing, suggesting that school choice in DeVos’s native Michigan did not include the strong accountability measures that exist in Denver. Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent, invited DeVos to visit Denver schools to see that firsthand.

Bennet was not done criticizing DeVos, though. He took to Twitter to challenge DeVos’s implication that choices in Denver are lacking because students can’t use private school vouchers or don’t have enough charter schools options.

Later, in an interview with Chalkbeat, he characterized the education secretary as “an ideologue when it comes to our public schools.”

It didn’t take long for teachers union leaders to evoke DeVos’s name in a debate over policy. In March, the union branded a bill to boost charter school funding as a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill. The legislation passed and was signed into law.

DeVos did make an appearance in Denver over the summer, but not to take up Bennet on his offer. (School was out, anyway).

She spoke at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. She used the appearance to criticize teachers unions and reiterate her support for private school vouchers.

Demonstrators made themselves heard, gathering at rallies and marching to the meeting with signs like “Make America Smart Again. Foreshadowing a hard-fought school board election season, a number of speakers at a rally on the Capitol steps sought to portray the Denver school board as being cut from the same school-choice cloth as the conservative Republican.

DeVos returned to Denver in September, this time as part of her national “Rethink Schools” tour. She visited a private autism center and called on the nation’s public schools to work with parents to better serve students with special needs.

Behind the scenes, a Douglas County couple who met with DeVos on that visit was not especially happy with how it went down.

The couple, plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit that set a new standard for educating children with special needs, told Chalkbeat that DeVos held them out as a “poster child” while cherrypicking details of their experience to suit her cause.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg used DeVos’s visit to have a letter hand-delivered to her staff urging DeVos to protect a program that defers the deportation of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

DeVos became a factor in November’s Denver school board election when teachers-union funded independent committees financed fliers that sought to tie the education secretary to school board candidates the union didn’t support.

School board incumbents targeted in the ads favored elements of school choice, including support for charter schools, but oppose vouchers and previously criticized DeVos and the Trump administration’s policies.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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