This coming Friday, two big crowds are expected at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue for Betsy DeVos’ first visit to Washington state as U.S. secretary of education.
Inside the posh hotel, the Washington Policy Center is expecting 1,500 people for its sold-out gala, where the minimum ticket price is $350.
Outside, DeVos critics expect an equal number of protesters who see DeVos’ support of charter schools and vouchers as a threat to the nation’s public-school system. Nearly 30 organizations plan to have members there, including the state’s largest teachers union.
Organizers hope it will be one of the biggest protests of DeVos yet.
“We’re one of the farthest cities from Washington, D.C., but we feel the ripples of the policy changes just as much as they would be felt in D.C.,” said Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition and an organizer of the rally. “It’s time for (DeVos) to understand that the Seattle area will stand by its progressive ideology.”
Across the country, DeVos’ visits to schools and events have largely followed the same pattern: The most controversial education secretary in recent history meets with supporters inside, amid protests outside.
DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist, has championed charter schools run by for-profit operators in her home state of Michigan and school-choice systems that allow students to use public money to attend private schools.
That’s raised the ire of those who see vouchers and charters – public-funded schools run by private organizations – as part of an attempt to privatize the nation’s public school system.
The Washington Policy Center, which describes itself as a free-market think tank, invited DeVos because of her distinguished role as a Cabinet member. Dann Mead Smith, the center’s president, said that alone is reason enough to ask her to speak.
“Why would you not want to hear from the country’s top education official, whether you agree with her or not?” he asked. “We felt like we should give people the opportunity to hear from her.”
But Navas said DeVos has already been given that opportunity. One example, she said, is DeVos’ decision to rescind the guidance that President Barack Obama’s administration gave colleges and universities on how to handle allegations of sexual assault.
“She has been clear she doesn’t care about civil rights; she doesn’t care about Title IX. She’s been heard,” Navas said.
This isn’t the first time that Washington Policy Center officials have invited controversial people to their galas, which bring in more than $1 million each year. Nigel Farage, who led the Brexit movement, spoke at the think tank’s dinner in Spokane in late September. Along with DeVos, Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto will speak at Friday’s dinner.
Mead Smith said he’s looking forward to hearing DeVos’ ideas.
“She sees that what we are doing currently does not seem to be working, which is the view of the policy center,” he said. “We spend more money on education, and whether it’s Democrat or Republican leadership, it doesn’t change much. We are hoping she might have some other out-of-the-box ideas that could actually help students.”
In a blog post, Liv Finne, director of the policy center’s Center for Education, wrote that opponents see DeVos as someone “who is disruptive, asks too many questions, listens too much to parents, and poses a threat to their position of power.”
Ken Zeichner, a professor in the University of Washington’s College of Education, agrees that many people in this state see DeVos as a threat, but for a different reason. Many public-school teachers and families worry DeVos doesn’t value public education in the same way they do, he said.
Critics also voice concern that DeVos will make cuts in existing education programs to increase funding for vouchers, and don’t like her view that schools shouldn’t be required to let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice.
“We don’t want to add any more fuel to the culture wars that are already happening in this country, and Secretary DeVos’ attitude toward the transgender community is just not right,” said Paul Benz, co-director of the Faith Action Network, one of the protest sponsors.
Zeicher wishes there was a way for DeVos and her critics to speak with each other.
In her visits elsewhere, students, teachers and school leaders have been able to speak with her and express any concerns they have about her ideas.
It’s unclear if she’ll go to any schools during her Washington visit.
On other trips, she has often visited charter schools, but Washington’s Charter Schools Association says it is not aware of any charter-school visits scheduled here.
In the past, that association has appeared to distance itself from DeVos. Just after she was narrowly confirmed as education secretary last February, for example, it pointed out that charter schools in Washington and Michigan, DeVos’ home state, are “worlds apart.”
In a prepared statement about DeVos’ upcoming visit, the association said it supports public education and expanding public-school options through a charter-school sector. However, it does not support “a school choice agenda that has the effect of helping some students at the expense of others, nor cuts to federal funding for traditional public schools that stand to have long-lasting and negative consequences for students, families, and communities in Washington and across the country.”
The association said it isn’t affiliated with the gala and also won’t be part of the protest.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal won’t be at the gala, either. He has a scheduling conflict, said spokesman Nathan Olson.
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