Saying “one size does not fit all” when it comes to schooling children, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos touted while in Colorado Springs on Wednesday a federal-level proposal to expand “education freedom,” or school choice.
“It’s the biggest, boldest plan yet for students,” DeVos told a crowd of 400 at an invitation-only 20th anniversary celebration of Parents Challenge.
The Colorado Springs nonprofit provides scholarships similar to education vouchers to low-income children toward costs of attending a school of their choice, regardless of where they live.
Parents and students who benefit from the organization, founders Steve and Joyce Schuck, legislators, school district superintendents, and others attended the luncheon, held at James Irwin Charter Academy High School in Harrison School District 2.
The proposed “Education Freedom Scholarship” federal tax credit would “fuel states to develop more opportunities for students,” DeVos said.
The plan would net Colorado an extra $60 million to fund scholarships for preschool, tutoring, career and technical education, dual enrollment in high school and college courses, transportation for programs, and other costs, she said.
“We believe this will be a game-changer,” DeVos said.
As envisioned, the program would not use taxpayers’ dollars or decrease funding for public schools, she said. The $5 billion program would be paid for by voluntary donations from individuals and businesses to student scholarships.
“As with freedom in any other setting, with education freedom comes more choices, and with more choices comes more quality,” DeVos said.
The idea has been introduced into both chambers of Congress, she said.
As DeVos talked about the benefits of school choice and assistance for economically disadvantaged children who usually do not have the means to attend a school outside of the boundaries in which they live, about 60 members of teachers unions from across the state demonstrated near the school.
Protesters wore red symbolizing education and hoisted signs that read “Fund Public Education,” “Deplorable DeVos,” “Keep Calm and Vote for Education” and other messages. They yelled chants at motorists on South Powers Boulevard.
“She needs to go,” said Colorado Springs School District 11 special education teacher Stephanie Marotto.
“The fact of her wanting to cut education funding, that alone, is just not OK,” she said. “Our students have a right to public education.”
DeVos has proposed cutting $7.1 billion from the 2020 federal education budget, compared with what lawmakers budgeted this year. She has drawn criticism for including special education in those proposed decreases.
Morgan Chavez, a parent who ran for a school board seat in Colorado Springs D-11, held a sign with an extended middle finger. She said she doesn’t like anything about DeVos.
“I don’t like her stance on charter schools,” Chavez said. “Education is a right no matter your ZIP code, and school choice takes that away. It makes rich kids get a good education and poor kids get a bad education.”
School-choice supporters say that’s exactly what they’re fighting for: equal rights for poorer students to go to a school of their choosing, perhaps outside of where they live.
Gwen Samuel, a parent of a student in a traditional school in Connecticut, attended the luncheon to hear DeVos, but on her way inside stopped to decry the protesters.
“I was curious to see teachers protesting in front of a school,” she said. “How do they think kids feel seeing that? They think, 'Did my mom or dad do something wrong?' No, parents are doing what they think is best for our children. If a school doesn’t work for a child, should a parent be forced to send their child to a school they don’t want?”
Steve Shapiro, a tutor for Parents Challenge students, said the fierce opposition on the part of educators doesn’t make sense.
“We’re so pro-choice on everything else, including abortion and marijuana, but when it comes to education, it’s oooh, hands-off of choice,” he said.
The political nature of the event dismayed some attendees.
“It’s all politics, but when it comes to our children, we’ve got to do the best for them,” said Nasombi Dixon, a single mother from Colorado Springs.
Her children, who are students at traditional public schools, have used Parents Challenge scholarships to attend a summer college-prep program at a private school, enroll in a science enrichment course, obtain private counseling and other assistance. She said she never would have been able to afford such services on her own.
“These are opportunities my children wouldn’t have experienced,” Dixon said. “These are things public schools don’t always cover. I’m able to empower my children with opportunities that will lead to lifelong skills.”
Teachers say they won't back down from their opposition to DeVos and her views on education.
"I'm here because I support public education and excellence education, and I feel like we need a leader who knows what that looks like," said Amanda Kerrigan, a teacher at Manitou Springs High School who was demonstrating.
"We want the money to go to a free public education that supports democracy," she said. "We feel democracy is being broken here."
Parents Challenge founder Steve Schuck, who has worked with DeVos to promote school choice for decades, told event attendees that “naysayers don’t hold a candle” to DeVos’ supporters.
“Betsy is bright, thoughtful, generous, compassionate, and she has concern for those less fortunate,” he said. “She’s the epitome of a servant leader.”
DeVos also spoke on the radio in Denver Wednesday on Jimmy Sengenberger's "Business for Breakfast" show on AM 1690 KDMT.
She said the country needed more programs such as Parents Challenge, and she commended founders Steve and Joyce Schuck.
"It's just a really great model and a great example of making an impact and changing the lives of the kids in that communty," DeVos said.
She likened it to a federal program she's considering that would allow people and corporations to donate through their tax returns to support programs in their community, including advancing school choice.
She defended her view of school choice, which Democrats allege is a way to cripple public schools and teachers unions.
"Traditional public schools pay a very important role, but we know too many kids are forced to go to schools that are not working for them," DeVos said to Sengenberger. "They are forced to go because of where they live. Their family can't afford to move somewhere different to make a different choice, unlike wealthy and well-connected families, who always have choices.
"We want to make sure all families have that same kind of power."