Newly minted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had a hard time getting inside the District’s Jefferson Middle School Academy last week when protesters briefly blocked herfrom entering. But at the end of her visit — her first to a public school since taking office — she stood on Jefferson’s front steps and pronounced it “awesome.”
A few days later, she seemed less enamored. The teachers at Jefferson were sincere, genuine and dedicated, she said, they seemed to be in “receive mode.”
“They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child,” DeVos told a columnist for the conservative online publication Townhall. “You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.”
DeVos, who has no professional experience in public education, is an avowed proponent of voucher schools, charter schools, online schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools. Teachers across the country have been galled by what they see as her lack of faith in — and understanding of — the public schools that educate nearly nine in 10 of the nation’s children.
Jefferson educators found her comments about their work hard to take: On Friday evening, the school responded to DeVos via its Twitter account, taking exception to the education secretary’s characterization of Jefferson teachers.
“We’re about to take her to school,” the first of 11 rapid-fire tweets said.
The tweetstorm singled out teachers like Jessica Harris, who built Jefferson’s band program “from the ground up,” and Ashley Shepherd and Britany Locher, who not only teach students ranging from a first- to eighth-grade reading level, but also “maintain a positive classroom environment focused on rigorous content, humor, and love. They aren’t waiting to be told what to do.”
“JA teachers are not in a ‘receive mode,'” the tweets concluded. “Unless you mean we ‘receive’ students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level.”
An Education Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. But DeVos weighed in on Twitter Saturday morning, saying Jefferson’s teachers are “awesome” and that they “deserve more freedom to innovate and help students.”
A policy manifesto from an influential conservative group with ties to the Trump administration, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, urges the dismantling of the Education Department and bringing God into American classrooms.
The five-page document produced by the Council for National Policy calls for a “restoration of education in America” that would minimize the federal role, promote religious schools and home schooling and enshrine “historic Judeo-Christian principles” as a basis for instruction.
Names of the council’s members are closely held. But the Southern Poverty Law Center published a 2014 membership directory showing that Stephen K. Bannon — now chief White House strategist for President Trump — was a member and that Kellyanne Conway — now counselor to the president — served on the council’s executive committee.
DeVos was not listed as a member, but her mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, was named on the council’s board of governors. Her father-in-law, Amway founder Richard DeVos Sr., twice served as president, most recently from 1990 to 1993. And she and her husband have given money to the council as recently as 2007 through their family foundation, according to federal tax records.
The council’s “Education Reform Report” says it is intended to help DeVos and Trump map a path toward change. The proposal to abolish the department dovetails with the long-held views of many Republicans, and Trump suggested during the 2016 campaign that the agency could be “largely eliminated.” But Trump has given no sign since taking office that he aims to act on that idea, and DeVos embraced the mission of the department when she took office last week.