POLITICS
05/01/2018 09:49 am ET Updated May 01, 2018

Nation’s Top Teachers Confront Betsy DeVos In Private Meeting

Teachers say they left the meeting disappointed and frustrated.

This story has been updated with video from Monday’s meeting and new information about what took place there.

At a roundtable with the nation’s top educators on Monday afternoon, at least one teacher told Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that her favored policies are having a negative effect on public schools, HuffPost has learned. HuffPost has also obtained video of DeVos expressing disapproval of the teachers strikes currently roiling Arizona.

DeVos met privately with more than 50 teachers who had been named 2018 teachers of the year in their states. As part of the discussion, teachers were asked to describe some of the obstacles they face at their jobs and were given the opportunity to ask the education secretary questions.

Jon Hazell, Oklahoma’s teacher of the year, told DeVos that school choice policies are draining traditional public schools of resources in his state. He specifically referenced charter schools and private schools in voucher programs, Hazell told HuffPost. His comment received support from other teachers in the room. 

But Hazell, a Republican who voted for President Donald Trump, said he found DeVos’ responses to his concerns unsatisfactory.

DeVos told Hazell that students might be choosing these schools to get out of low-performing public schools, he said.

“I said, ‘You’re the one creating the ‘bad’ schools by taking all the kids that can afford to get out and leaving the kids who can’t behind,’” Hazell said he told DeVos in response. (Hazell said he was not referring to DeVos specifically as creating the “bad” schools but to school choice policies generally.)

The centerpiece of DeVos’ education agenda involves expanding school choice policies. Before entering the White House, she spent years advocating for these programs and pouring money into the cause.  

Brian McDaniel, California’s teacher of the year, confirmed Hazell’s version of events. He described the two as nearly engaging in a “verbal sparring session” and said DeVos’ staffers looked eager to take Hazell’s mic away, although they never did. Tara Bordeaux, Texas’ teacher of the year, said Hazell’s line of questioning hit on the concerns of “a lot of educators right now.”

At one point during the event, DeVos talked about how traditional public schools and charter schools should be thought of as parts of the same public school system, a comment that irked educators in the room because the two types of school are managed differently and subject to different rules and regulations. Charter schools are publicly funded but often privately operated. Melissa Romano, Montana’s teacher of the year, and McDaniel said they believed DeVos was including voucher programs in that statement. Voucher programs provide children with publicly funded scholarships to private schools.

“That was a shocker to all the teachers in the room,” Hazell, a science teacher of 35 years, told HuffPost.  

For her to say at the ‘expense of children’ was a very profound moment and one I’ll remember forever, because that is so far from what is happening. Melissa Romano, Montana’s teacher of the year

Overall, both Hazell and McDaniel said, DeVos was a friendly, attentive listener who was respectful of the teachers’ opinions. They said teachers also remained respectful in their critiques. However, both said they left the meeting immensely disappointed.

McDaniel, a music teacher, initially had high hopes for the meeting. After he pressed DeVos for more support for music education, she expressed support for the subject and said she would look into providing more backing for the arts. 

“If I would have left the room right then and there, that would have been probably the greatest moment of my life as an educator,” McDaniel said. “Things slowly started to erode, though.”

DeVos also expressed opposition to teachers going on strike for more education funding, per video of the meeting obtained by HuffPost. DeVos made her comments after Josh Meibos, Arizona’s teacher of the year, asked her about when striking teachers will be listened to. In response, DeVos told Meibos that she “cannot comment specifically to the Arizona situation,” but that she hopes “adults would take their disagreements and solve them not at the expense of kids and their opportunity to go to school and learn.”

“I’m very hopeful there will be a prompt resolution there,” DeVos can be heard saying in the video. “I hope that we can collectively stay focused on doing what’s right for individual students and supporting parents in that decision-making process as well. And there are many parents that want to have a say in how and where their kids pursue their education, too.”

She continued, “I just hope we’re going to be able to take a step back and look at what’s ultimately right for the kids in the long term.” 

DeVos has an intensely fraught relationship with teachers unions, and her family has a long history of working against organized labor. 

Meibos had protested last Friday with other Arizona teachers, many of whom are on strike over issues related to education funding and teacher salaries. The idea of his fellow teachers protesting while he was meeting with the U.S. secretary of education weighed on him. 

“It was disappointing not to hear language about supporting teachers,” Meibos said. “It didn’t go in that direction.”

Other teachers in the room found DeVos’ response similarly disappointing.

“She basically said that teachers should be teaching and we should be able to solve our problems not at the expense of children,” Romano said. “For her to say at the ‘expense of children’ was a very profound moment and one I’ll remember forever, because that is so far from what is happening.”

DeVos took questions for about 30 minutes. Not all teachers had the opportunity to have questions answered.

Representatives from the Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment. The White House is slated to hold a formal reception for the states’ teachers of the year on Wednesday.

“I think a lot of us were grateful about having the opportunity to speak with the secretary and be in the presence of the Department of Education,” McDaniel said. “However, I left with more questions than answers.”

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