U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is scheduled to speak in Denver next week at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that has successfully advocated for free-market principles at statehouses across the country.
While DeVos will find a friendly audience at ALEC, she’ll get a different greeting from liberal activists and union leaders who are seizing on the chance to protest DeVos’s agenda.
This is DeVos’s first visit to Colorado since the billionaire philanthropist and school choice advocate was confirmed as President Donald Trump’s pick for the nation’s top education job.
DeVos has close ties to ALEC. She is the founder of the American Federation for Children, which provides financial support to ALEC and has representation on ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force.
ALEC is best known for crafting “model” legislation advancing conservative principles on issues ranging from tax limitations to gun safety and the environment. Its membership includes corporations and nearly 2,000 state legislators across the country.
DeVos shares ALEC’s support for charter schools and the use of tax dollars to pay for private school education through vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts.
As of Thursday, DeVos’s appearance was not listed on the meeting’s online agenda. An ALEC spokeswoman confirmed DeVos will appear, but said details including the timing still were being worked out. The group’s meeting runs Wednesday through Friday.
Inez Feltscher Stepman, director of ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force, lauded DeVos’s support for school choice and for making clear that decision-making about education should be invested in states.
“It’s really encouraging to hear (states) should have the primary responsibility for crafting their education systems, and should be the leaders in education reform and opportunity,” she said.
A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman did not respond to questions this week about whether DeVos has any other stops or appearances planned during her Colorado trip.
The secretary has a standing invitation from Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado to visit Denver Public Schools and get a window into the district’s brand of school choice.
DeVos has been critical of DPS, implying that its choices are lacking because students can’t use private school vouchers or don’t have enough charter schools from which to choose.
Bennet, a former DPS superintendent, fired back, saying DeVos was wrong. In a later interview with Chalkbeat, he called her an ideologue who is not the face of education reform.
A DPS spokesman said Thursday a member of DeVos’s team contacted the district to ask about learning more about its efforts to serve students learning English. Approximately 37 percent of Denver’s 92,000 students are English language learners. The spokesman said the district is working to connect the DeVos team member with DPS’s experts, but “there are no plans in place right now.”
A “Denver RESISTS DeVos” protest, meanwhile, is planned for 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday outside the state Capitol involving multiple groups. The protest is being promoted on a Facebook page hosted by Tay Anderson, a 2017 Manual High School graduate who is running for a Denver school board seat. It’s part of a broader “ALEC resistance” effort that includes a “teach-in.”
The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is planning to make signs that morning, take part in the protest and then march to the ALEC meeting at a downtown hotel, according to its Facebook event page.
John Ford, president of Jefferson County Education Association and a scheduled speaker at Wednesday’s protest, said in a statement via email that “voucher schemes and other failed reforms” DeVos will promote are not welcome in Colorado.