Protesters, including Ari Schwartz, center, gather outside Jefferson Middle School in Washington to protest Betsy DeVos. Feb. 10, 2017.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos encountered protesters Friday morning outside a D.C. middle school and found her way barred as she tried to enter through a side door, forcing her to retreat into a government vehicle as a man shouted “Shame!”
Eventually, DeVos got inside for an event starting at about 10 a.m. that included the D.C. schools chancellor and others. The event was closed to the media.
But the demonstration outside Jefferson Middle School Academy was a further sign that DeVos remains a polarizing figure in the education world days after she took office.
A video clip circulated on Twitter by ABC 7 News WJLA-TV showed an unusual scene of DeVos attempting to enter the school. She was foiled as a protester blocked her way. She turned around, got back into her sport-utility vehicle and was driven away from that entrance. However, she did get in through another door.
As the event appeared to be winding down, DeVos appeared at the top of the steps outside the school’s main door to make a brief statement to reporters.
“It was really wonderful to visit this school, and I look forward to many visits of many great public schools, both in D.C. and around the country,” she said. “Thanks very much.”
She declined to answer a reporter’s question about the protests as she was re-entering the building. But asked what she thought of the school, she turned back to say: “School was awesome.”
Shortly before DeVos’s arrival, several dozen parents, teachers and others had gathered to show support for public schools. Some of the demonstrators were members of the Washington Teachers Union.
Outside Jefferson, a teacher from a D.C. charter school, who declined to be named, carried a sign that said: “Ms. DeVos: Our children are not props.” Others shouted “We fight back!”
“Betsy DeVos does not represent our students or our families here in D.C.,” the teacher said. “She doesn’t have our best interests at heart.”
Elizabeth Davis, president of the union, publicized the DeVos visit on Twitter Thursday, calling on protesters to “say ‘NO’ to privatization of our schools.”
Davis said Friday morning the union is supporting Jefferson teachers, who are concerned about the visit.
“We want to share the message that we love our public school system,” Davis told reporters outside Jefferson. “Public education teachers believe that public education is the cornerstone, it’s the foundation of our society.”
D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who just took office himself in recent days, entered the school without speaking with demonstrators or reporters.
A spokeswoman for D.C Public Schools declined to comment. Officials at the U.S. Education Department did not respond to The Washington Post’s inquiries about the trip.
According to several sources, teachers at the school were upset by her visit and planned to wear black to show their feelings.
DeVos is a billionaire who has spent three decades lobbying for private school vouchers, charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools. She was one of President Trump’s most controversial Cabinet picks and barely won confirmation. Her supporters call her a bold reformer, while opponents fear she will seek to undermine public schools by funneling taxpayer funding to private and religious schools.
She made a plea for unity on Wednesday, her first full day in office, saying in a speech to Education Department employees that “while we may have disagreements, we can – and must – come together, find common ground and put the needs of our students first.”
On Thursday, DeVos visited Howard University, a historically black university in the District that receives special support through federal appropriations every year. But the reception at Jefferson shows the difficulty DeVos faces in winning the trust and confidence of those who opposed her confirmation.
Jefferson, a few blocks from department headquarters, is five years into a turnaround effort and is often cited as an example of the systemwide improvements in the city’s public schools.
D.C. Public Schools was once among the nation’s lowest-performing urban school districts, but in recent years has won widespread attention for making rapid progress as judged by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The District has also been a laboratory for the philosophy of choice in education. The growing charter school sector now enrolls nearly half the city’s public-school students, and the nation’s only federally funded voucher program helps more than 1,000 children attend private and religious schools at taxpayer expense.
While many advocates believe that the competition has been fruitful, providing families with options and encouraging the school system to improve, others argue that the rapid growth of charter schools has undermined efforts to improve neighborhood schools and left parents scrambling to win citywide school enrollment lotteries.
Lyndsey Medsker, the parent of two students in Brent Elementary, which feeds into Jefferson, said it was the “perfect place for the new secretary to see first-hand a public school that fell victim to the chaos of charters and a fervor for school choice.”
“Today, thanks to a dedicated administration, impressive teaching staff and community support, the school is rapidly improving,” Medsker said. “But, to make public schools like Jefferson ‘great again,’ if you will, they need a commitment from Secretary Devos and support from D.C.’s mayor and city leadership. It’s time for all politicians to stop using quality schools as photo ops and to really invest in neighborhood public schools.”
Medsker did not plan to join the crowd as she didn’t want to appear to be protesting DeVos. She said now that DeVos is confirmed, she should be welcomed into public schools so she can learn why they are important and deserving of her support.
One staff member at Jefferson said that she and many of her colleagues are troubled by DeVos’s decades-long campaign to promote vouchers as a way to escape from public schools that work hard to serve all students. She said she feared that the new education secretary would use Jefferson students – most of whom are African American and come from low-income families – for a photo op to burnish her image.
“I was horrified,” the staff member said of her reaction to the news that DeVos was coming to Jefferson, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to a reporter.
During the Obama administration, D.C. public schools were frequently used as backdrops for Education Department events and appearances by the president and first lady. But that felt different, the staff member said. “Obama was not rooting against the very essence of what we are,” she said.
Another Jefferson staff member said she spent the first part of the week calling senators to urge them to vote against DeVos. It was surreal, she said, to know she was coming to visit Friday. “I really fear for our students’ future and the future of our schools and communities,” she said. “Her belief in privatization without equal accountability leaves high-needs students behind.”
She said she hoped Jefferson would show DeVos how positive, loving and strong a public school can be, and to show her that teachers care fiercely about their students. “It’s about letting her know that anybody seeking to jeopardize our students is going to have to go through us,” she said.