U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos touted the importance of making higher education accessible Thursday while on a whirlwind tour of vocational classrooms at Johnson County Community College.
The highly orchestrated two-hour visit included stops to view spaces used for teaching automotive, electrical, welding, nursing and culinary programs.
The stop was part of a six-state tour in which DeVos has traveled to public and private schools, highlighting themes ranging from services for children with autism to Native American education.
Asked how Thursday’s focus on career and technical education at the Johnson County college fits with her agency’s proposal to cut more than $165 million from federal funding for career and technical education, DeVos said the U.S. Department of Education is dedicated to ensuring students have opportunities beyond high school.
“We are actually supporting career and technical education at nearly the same level from the last fiscal year, and the focus is administration-wide on supporting career and technical education as part of a holistic look at higher education,” she said. “For too long, I think we’ve done a disservice to young people in suggesting that four-year college or university was the only way that they could be successful as adults.”
Earlier this year, DeVos put forth a budget proposal with the Trump administration that included more than $165 million in cuts to career and technical education. Kansas schools received $10.2 million from that budget in 2016.
A summary of the budget on the U.S. Department of Education website says “a decrease is necessary to align with overall Budget priorities” but adds that states would continue to have spending flexibility for those dollars.
During her short tenure, DeVos has met with fierce criticism from public education and civil rights advocates, in part for her policies relating to higher education.
She’s seen as sympathetic to for-profit colleges on fraud and loan regulations that had been intended to protect students and recently announced a review of Title IX regulations against sexual discrimination on campuses. Advocates fear a rollback that will shield perpetrators of sexual assault, though some faculty have expressed concern with Title IX’s implementation.
‘Energized’ by the opportunity
DeVos’ JCCC visit came late in the afternoon — 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. — meaning some classes already had ended. She greeted and spoke briefly with small groups of students working in the automotive and electrical labs. In the health care lab, where class was over, she heard from a professor and two students who described what they had done that day.
Afterward, health care professor Kathy Carver said she had been excited for DeVos’ visit —“energized that we would have an opportunity to share what we’re doing here at the college.”
“I want her to know that we are creative, we are cutting edge,” Carver said.
Asked about the controversies surrounding DeVos, Carver said those aren’t the point.
“I’m not really speaking to her in that level. I really want to appreciate her being a representative of our government,” she said. “She’s come here to get information about who we are, and I think that’s valuable, because they can’t make decisions if they don’t know who they’re making decisions about.”
Several students expressed a similar sentiment, saying they appreciated the opportunity to showcase their school.
“It’s a great opportunity for her to see our campus and show her what a great example of public education is, so she has that exposure,” said Ryanne Pritchard, a student of American history with a concentration in African American studies. “I try to stay away from the political aspect. I’m only here because I’m a student and I want her to see the positives.”
Fellow student Derek Benson hoped DeVos would come away knowing the value of community colleges.
"I think it's good to show her how affordable college can actually be,” he said. “You can actually spend like $2,000 a year to go to a community college and still get the same education — or even a better education at that."
School choice a hot topic
As DeVos wrapped up her visit with by mingling with students in the culinary building, state Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Olathe Democrat, slipped into DeVos’ hands a folder full of statements from public education advocacy groups.
Holscher said the letters express concern about DeVos’ proposals to use federal funding for school choice programs that are a perennial source of debate in education and political circles. The agency’s budget proposal this year included $1.4 billion to advance public and private school choice.
“To say she and I are on different pages in regard to our view of public education is probably an understatement,” Holscher said afterward. “I am the product of public schools, my children go to public schools, 90 percent of our children go to public schools in the United States, so to me that’s where we need to be making the investment.”
National media have reported that DeVos attended private school and chose the same option for her children, a detail that rankles public education advocates who fear she doesn’t support their schools.
Asked about criticism that she focuses too much attention on private instead of public schools, DeVos said she has visited “a wide array of schools.”
The focus for her current six-state tour, she said, is visiting schools “that are doing things creatively and innovatively.”
“We are highlighting all schools that do a great job at meeting the needs of their students,” she said. “There are all kinds of educational opportunities — a wide range — that I would hope that we could focus less on what word comes before ‘school’ and more on what we need to do to meet the needs of all individual students and give them the greatest opportunity to personally succeed.”
Public details of DeVos’ six-state itinerary have been sparse and came on short notice, an approach that Education Week has observed repeatedly and says is meant “to thwart potential protestors.”
On Thursday near the JCCC campus, a small group of protesters held signs with messages opposing public funding for private school tuition, DeVos’ stance on Title IX and other policies.
Protests continued Friday morning on the other side of the state line, where DeVos visited a small private school. The school is known for embracing inclusion and the rights of LGBTQ students. DeVos has rescinded federal guidance supporting the rights of transgender students.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.