Nation’s top teachers ‘verbally spar’ with Betsy DeVos in private meeting


At a roundtable with the nation’s top educators on Monday afternoon, at least one teacher told Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that her favored policies are having a negative effect on public schools, HuffPost has learned.

DeVos met privately with over 50 teachers who had been named 2018 teachers of the year in their states. As part of the discussion, teachers were asked to describe some of the obstacles they face at their jobs and were given the opportunity to ask the education secretary questions.

Jon Hazell, Oklahoma’s teacher of the year, told DeVos that school choice policies are draining traditional public schools of resources in his state. He specifically referenced charter schools and private schools in voucher programs, Hazell told HuffPost. His comment received support from other teachers in the room. 

But Hazell, a Republican who voted for President Donald Trump, said he found DeVos’ responses to his concerns unsatisfactory.

DeVos told Hazell that students might be choosing these schools to get out of low-performing public schools, he said.

“I said, ‘You’re the one creating the ‘bad’ schools by taking all the kids that can afford to get out and leaving the kids who can’t behind,’” Hazell said he told DeVos in response. (Hazell said he was not referring to DeVos specifically as creating the “bad” schools but to school choice policies generally.)

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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Mary Schwalm

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 30: U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (L), who was dressed as Ms. Frizzle from 'The Magic Schoolbus' series, and Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway attend Halloween at the White House on the South Lawn October 30, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump gave cookies away to costumed trick-or-treaters one day before the Halloween holiday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence stand with Betsy DeVos before their meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016.

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(Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump (C, background) waits to interrupt Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she speaks to students at a school choice event at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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US President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush wave after they were introduced by the Chair of the Michigan Republican Party Betsy DeVos 30 October 2004 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bush is on his final three days of campaigning prior for the election November 02.

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos makes remarks during a major policy address on Title IX enforcement, which in college covers sexual harassment, rape and assault, at George Mason University, in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Theiler
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U.S. President Donald Trump, joined by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (from L), advisor Jared Kushner and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, thanks fourth-grade students Janayah Chatelier (3rd R) and Landon Fritz (R) for the "Happy Birthday Florida" card they gave him as he visits their classroom at Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Florida, U.S. March 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (2nd R) and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) (R) arrive with President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Florida, U.S. March 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
CAMBRIDGE, MA - SEPTEMBER 28: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks in a forum at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government on Thursday, September 28, 2017. (Photo by Katye Martens Brier for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence emerge with Betsy DeVos after their meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Mike Segar)

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The centerpiece of DeVos’ education agenda involves expanding school choice policies. Before entering the White House, she spent years advocating for these programs and pouring money into the cause.  

Brian McDaniel, California’s teacher of the year, confirmed Hazell’s version of events. He described the two as nearly engaging in a “verbal sparring session” and said DeVos’ staffers looked eager to take Hazell’s mic away, although they never did. Tara Bordeaux, Texas’ teacher of the year, said Hazell’s line of questioning hit on the concerns of “a lot of educators right now.”

At one point during the event, DeVos talked about how traditional public schools and charter schools should be thought of as parts of the same public school system, a comment that irked educators in the room because the two types of school are managed differently and subject to different rules and regulations. Charter schools are publicly funded but often privately operated. Melissa Romano, Montana’s teacher of the year, and McDaniel said they believed DeVos was including voucher programs in that statement. Voucher programs provide children with publicly funded scholarships to private schools.

“That was a shocker to all the teachers in the room,” Hazell, a science teacher of 35 years, told HuffPost.  

For her to say at the ‘expense of children’ was a very profound moment and one I’ll remember forever because that is so far from what is happening -- Melissa Romano, Montana’s teacher of the year

Overall, both Hazell and McDaniel said, DeVos was a friendly, attentive listener who was respectful of the teachers’ opinions. They said teachers also remained respectful in their critiques. However, both said they left the meeting immensely disappointed.

McDaniel, a music teacher, initially had high hopes for the meeting. After he pressed DeVos for more support for music education, she expressed support for the subject and said she would look into providing more backing for the arts. 

“If I would have left the room right then and there, that would have been probably the greatest moment of my life as an educator,” McDaniel said. “Things slowly started to erode, though.”

Hazell and McDaniel said that at one point DeVos expressed opposition to teachers going on strike for more education funding. Indeed, DeVos has an intensely fraught relationship with teachers unions, and her family has a long history of working against organized labor. 

“She basically said that teachers should be teaching and we should be able to solve our problems not at the expense of children,” Romano said. “For her to say at the ‘expense of children’ was a very profound moment and one I’ll remember forever because that is so far from what is happening.”

DeVos took questions for about 30 minutes. Not all teachers had the opportunity to have questions answered. 

Representatives from the Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment. The White House is slated to hold a formal reception for the states’ teachers of the year on Wednesday. 

“I think a lot of us were grateful about having the opportunity to speak with the secretary and be in the presence of the Department of Education,” McDaniel said. “However, I left with more questions than answers.” 

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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