Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ speech at Harvard University on Thursday was interrupted by protesters who held up signs saying – among other things – that she is a white supremacist.
DeVos had intended to promote her school choice program; she has earmarked more than $1 billion of public money for the project, which encourages parents to seek out non-public schools for their children.
But she found herself upstaged by protesters inside and outside the building, furious not just at the school choice scheme, but also about her reworking of rape rules and her removal of transgender bathroom protections.
Betsy DeVos had her speech at Harvard interrupted by protesters upset at – among other things – her pushing the school choice program, which benefits private and charter schools
The protesters in the hall were largely silent during DeVos’ (right) speech but chanted ‘What does white supremacy look like? That’s what white supremacy looks like’ as she left
As DeVos spoke, students in the room unfurled banners that read ‘Our students are not 4 sale,’ ‘white supremacist’ and ‘educational justice is racial justice.’
She plowed on, refusing to interrupt her speech to address the protesters, but took some pointed questions from the audience.
The protest was mostly silent, though some students snapped their fingers or cheered in support of some of the questions.
One student objected to the decision to promote charter schools through the school choice program; they are funded by public money but usually operated by entities that are independent of school districts.
They asked how much she expects her net worth to increase as a result of her policies.
‘I have written lots of checks to support giving parents and kids options to choose a school of their choice,’ she replied. ‘The balance on my income has gone very much the other way and will continue to do so.’
Another person asked about DeVos’ repeal of Obama-era Title IX rules that said sexual harassment on college campuses fell under sexual discrimination laws.
They had been intended to ensure that universities took rape claims seriously, but DeVos said that they had led to people being unfairly accused of sexual assault.
She said she wanted new rules on campus sexual assault that would be fair to both the victims and the accused.
Outside, protesters were upset not just at the school choice program, but also her removal of Title IX protections for campus rape victims and her repeal of transgender bathroom rules
‘One sexual assault is one too many,’ DeVos said. ‘By the same token, one student that is denied due process is one to many. So we need to ensure that that policy and that framework is fair to all students.’
Earlier this year DeVos rescinded government guidance that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms that matched their gender identity.
Asked about protections for such students, she said that she was committed to making sure all students are safe.
‘With respect to any student that feels unsafe or discriminated against in their school, that is the last thing we want and the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education continues to hear and work with the schools that have any of those issues to deal with,’ she said.
‘And we are committed to doing that on behalf of the students.’
During her speech DeVos talked about the importance of reforming the American education system.
‘The future of school choice does not begin with a new federal mandate from Washington,’ DeVos said.
DeVos removed guidance that said transgender students should be allowed to choose the bathroom that fits their gender identity
Rather, she added, the role of the federal government is to help states provide more choices for parents as they decide where to send their children to school.
‘We can amplify the voices of those who only want better for their kid,’ she said in the speech at Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.
‘We can assist states who are working to further empower parents, and urge those who haven’t.’
As she left the auditorium, DeVos was mocked with a chant of ‘What does white supremacy look like? That’s what white supremacy looks like.’
Protests continued outside.
Samantha White, a 19-year-old neurobiology major, said she came to the speech to ask DeVos why she rescinded the guidance on campus sexual assault.
‘I am very upset and angry about it,’ White said.
‘Sexual assault is such a huge problem on college campus already and if you are rolling this back, it makes survivors of sexual assault more vulnerable and it’s more difficult for them to seek justice when there aren’t these regulations.’
Tony DelaRosa, 27, a student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, held a sign reading ‘Our Students Are Not 4 Sale.’
‘We need public schools not to lose our funding and be given to charter schools,’ DelaRosa told the AP.
‘Administering more charters anywhere, it’s going to take funding from somewhere.’
DeVos also says that the Title IX protections led to false accusations; the woman on the right protested that, quoting a statistic that says a quarter of female students experience abuse
But some at the event just wanted to know more. Sophomore Brandon Hill came to learn more about school choice.
Hill, who studies applied mathematics, said he has studied at both a charter and a traditional public school and found his charter school to be more focused on students’ academic growth and character development.
‘The teachers could explore different curriculum ideas and teach what they are interested in and what they are excited about,’ Hills said.
‘I appreciated it, yes. I would say it was more innovative.’
Before the speech, the Education Department announced $253 million in grants to expand charter schools across the country.
The awards went to nine states, two state agencies and over 20 nonprofit charter management organizations. The grants were awarded as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
‘Charter schools are now part of the fabric of American education, and I look forward to seeing how we can continue to work with states to help ensure more students can learn in an environment that works for them,’ DeVos said in a statement.
DeVos was a supporter of school choice efforts in Michigan before becoming President Donald Trump’s education chief.
DeVos, a billionaire who has drawn fire for her advocacy of for-profit schools, was confirmed in February when Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. She is married to the heir and former chief executive of Amway.
She is also the daughter of the founders of Prince Corp, a Michigan car parts supplier, and sister of Erik Prince, the founder of the security company formerly known as Blackwater USA, now called Academi.
DeVos, a billionaire who has drawn fire for her advocacy of for-profit schools, was confirmed in February when Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate