Embattled U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made a surprise visit to the Dallas-Fort Worth area Thursday — so surprising that it wasn’t even on her public schedule.
Not everyone was thrilled about it, though. DeVos visited Urban Specialists (a privately funded group partly funded by Stand Together, which funded by the Charles Koch-led Seminar Network), Billy Earl Dade Middle School, and 16 Streets Center. She began the day in North Richland Hills’ Birdville ISD.
Dallas ISD board president Dan Micciche said Wednesday evening that the visit was arranged by Urban Specialists and Dallas ISD trustee Bernadette Nutall. Nutall, who ran the Dallas non-profit Circle of Support Dallas, recently joined her endeavor to Urban Specialists umbrella and is now an executive director.
Micciche said that the rest of the board was unaware of the impending visit until they received an email Wednesday afternoon.
“The school board was not even notified about the visit until I received an email from the US Department of Education, which I immediately I forwarded to all board members,” he said.
About 100 or so protesters gathered outside Dade, but DeVos would be hard-pressed to see them or hear them since she arrived at the back door of the school to a drum line and cheerleaders. But among the protesters were Dallas ISD trustee Joyce Foreman, and Nutall’s District 9 opponents in the upcoming May 22 school board election — Justin Henry and Ed Turner.
“I’m not inside because I don’t want a photo op with her,” Foreman told protesters.
All three had reacted Wednesday evening on Facebook as well.
“Trustee Bernadette Nutall’s invite of Betsy DeVos to Billy E. Dade is a slap in the face to the students, parents, and teachers in District 9,” Turner said, adding that it was insulting that Nutall didn’t inform her fellow trustees or the community of the visit sooner.
“Why did our current District 9 Trustee Bernadette Nutall invite an enemy of public education (Secretary Betsy DeVos) to Billy Earl Dade Middle School in DISD?” Henry asked. “Secretary DeVos is a clear and present danger to public education. Secretary Devos actively promotes the privatization of public education, and her track record supports this.”
Even Foreman, who is a frequent ally of Nutall’s on the board, was flummoxed. “I just found out today that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will be at Billy Earl Dade Middle School at 2:00 p.m. tomorrow,” she wrote. “I have also been told that there will be a protest. I do not support the direction of the Department of Education under Betsy DeVos.”
Nutall responded to the issue on Facebook as well, saying, “There is no doubt about my commitment to Public Education, our students and the residents of Dallas ISD District 9.”
“We have different ideas, viewpoints and politics about public education in America,” she continued. “Yes, I know that this won’t sit well with some, and I get that.”
Nutall went on to say that she believed that Dade’s successes could be a model for the rest of the country when it comes to public education, and that she hoped the visit would show DeVos — often seen as an opponent of public education — what is working in public schools.
“I am not supporting her stances……instead; I am utilizing this as an opportunity to highlight how DISD is responding to challenges with viable solutions,” she said. “I believe we shouldn’t turn our back on the chance to discuss our position and commitment to public education, and subsequently our children, educators and communities.”
Inside Dade, DeVos toured the school with Dade principal Tracie Washington. Dade, which went from being the worst performing middle school in Dallas to one of the best in a few short years, has gotten national attention for its change in culture and its successes. Washington is credited for helming a team that masterminded that turnaround, and was named the district’s principal of the year in 2016. Dade was in the inaugural cohort of ACE campuses as well, which meant that it got additional funds and resources from the district to tackle deeply rooted issues within and without the school.
After her tour, DeVos had a quick roundtable with Jahwar, Nutall, and Washington in front of the assembled press. She praised Washington and her team for the work they did, calling it “very inspirational.”
“Every time I’m able to visit and see first hand a school like this, it’s great,” she said.
But would the programs that made Dade’s successes possible be something she’d take back to Washington D.C. to try to scale them for national policy?
Not exactly. “We should not expect Washington to hand down what is going to happen,” she said, adding that states and local school districts know best what works for them.
But what about her push for school choice and the potential for vouchers or reduction in funding for public schools, she was asked — surely that sort of thing would take money away from schools like Dade?
“I’m champion for all schools,” she said. “I’m a champion for kids and for kids having a great opportunity to learn.”
DeVos denied that she desired to privatize public education. “I view education as an investment in individual students and individual children,” she said, adding that she just wanted every parent to be able to choose what is best for their child. “So, if we keep oriented around making sure that every student has the opportunity to pursue a great education, I think we’ll all be able to arrive at good solutions.”
When asked if the district’s merit pay system (which offers higher salaries for teachers who meet certain benchmarks and has been attributed to some of the success Dade and other schools has had) could be funded by a federal program eventually to help offset the expense, DeVos prevaricated, saying that there are several federal programs that allow districts to spend those funds as they see fit.
“There’s a lot of flexibility,” she said, adding that perhaps Dallas ISD could reallocate some of its federal funds to offset its funding needs for teacher pay increases.
DeVos was also asked about a proposed reversal of Obama-era policy that was aimed at addressing racial bias in school disciplinary policies. She told reporters that they are still in the “information gathering stage,” but that while she’s heard good things about policies like restorative justice, she was unwilling to say that the practices were a good fit everywhere.
Overall, DeVos was most effusive when it came to doling out praise for Dade and its principal, although she stopped short of saying what worked at Dade could be duplicated.
“The really important factor here is the leadership and staff of this school,” she said. “Leadership matters. Teachers are incredibly important.” She said that part of the Every Student Succeeds Act was an overview of what resources are available to schools, and how they’re being used — and that she was waiting for that hard look to be completed.
After her visit to Dade, DeVos had a driving tour through the neighborhoods around Dade, and then had another meeting at 16 Streets Center. She finished her Dallas itinerary about an hour ahead of schedule.