WASHINGTON - Dozens of parents and neighbors on both sides of the U.S. debate about school-choice issues protested against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she visited a public school near the nation's capital Thursday.
DeVos, who was one of the more controversial choices President Donald Trump made for his Cabinet, entered the school despite the protest and visited with a group of 7- and 8-year-olds.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan accompanied DeVos at Carderock Springs Elementary School in Bethesda, just outside Washington. The education secretary read portions of a Dr. Seuss classic, Oh, the Places You'll Go, to the children.
DeVos' visit last month to a public school in Washington, just a short distance from her offices at the Department of Education, also was met with protesters, who briefly barred her from entering the building.
The billionaire philanthropist was considered an unconventional pick for education secretary. Although she has been involved in education policy for nearly three decades, she never attended, worked for or administered a public school system.
'Advocate for children'
She describes herself as “an advocate for children and a voice for parents,” and is “especially passionate about reforms that help underserved children gain access to a quality education.”
DeVos has long championed a policy of school choice, which allows parents to choose freely whether their children attend traditional public schools, private schools or “charter schools” — independent schools operating under contract with a public school network, supported by public funds.
Critics say DeVos' policies encourage further privatization of education in American cities and towns and undermine the public school system.
“I am very concerned about her approach to providing vouchers to people who are putting their kids in private schools or religious schools, or schools where there is little or no oversight,” said Heidi Bumper, who joined Thursday's demonstration.
“We need to support our public schools and provide funding for our public school educations,” Bumper added, “for all kids.”
Church-state issues a concern
Opponents of privatization contend that diverting billions of taxpayer dollars from public schools to Christian and Catholic institutions, which make up the majority of private schools in the United States, also raises concerns about the traditional American separation of church and state affairs.
DeVos' supporters say greater choice in schools and more voucher plans can provide a lifeline for parents whose children are enrolled in underperforming schools and districts — those where student test scores and achievements are below average — and also give public educators an incentive to produce better results.
“If schools had to compete for students, they'd have better outcomes,” Carderock parent Ann Moore said.
“I think the problem is the [teachers] unions,” Moore said, “and I think Secretary DeVos has the right idea — minimizing the impact of the unions on education and giving parents the right to choose, especially in inner-city schools and poor performing schools in rural areas. Let's give parents options.”