OVERLAND PARK — Education’s controversial head, Betsy DeVos, is touting educational programs focused on “innovation and creativity” during her nationwide tour of schools and colleges, and she stopped Thursday in Overland Park.
DeVos, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, was swept from program to program over a two-hour visit to Johnson County Community College on Thursday. She toured career and technical facilities, a health care simulator for nursing students and ate food prepared by the school’s culinary students.
A long-time proponent of school choice, including charter schools and school vouchers, DeVos has drawn criticism from education advocates and parents since she was appointed to the position, including from some area parents and lawmakers.
DeVos didn’t address her stances on public education or her recent decision to roll back Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assault during her brief public comments.
“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,” DeVos said.
She called for schools and communities to tailor their educational opportunities to the needs of the area industries and work forces.
“For me, it is really inspiring to hear their individual stories and to have — once again — confirmed that every single student is special and unique,” DeVos said. “And we need to be focused on ensuring that they have the opportunity to develop themselves to their fullest potential.”
Her visit primarily focused on meeting students, faculty members and officials, some of whom came prepared to talk to DeVos about challenges facing education. The school’s spokesman, Chris Gray, said the students DeVos met with were all either campus leaders or students in the tech, health care and culinary programs at which she looked.
Gray said the Department of Education wanted to specifically focus DeVos’ visit on those programs.
Allison Koelzer, 20, is a third-year student at JCCC, studying liberal arts. Koelzer, the school’s Model United Nations president, said she plans to transfer to a four-year school and was glad JCCC was getting attention because of its programs and affordability.
“That being said, personally, I do disagree with a lot of her policies,” Koelzer said.
Koelzer said she especially took issue with DeVos’ decision to roll back guidance the Department of Education issued during President Barack Obama’s tenure that took aim at sexual assault on college campuses. She said it was personal to her because she knew people who had been assaulted.
“To think that maybe their rights would be infringed on if they had been assaulted and they went to the school about it, is just really frightening and unsettling to me,” Koelzer said.
Koelzer said she hoped to talk to DeVos about college affordability. She said she feared some students could be prevented from getting opportunities because of the fear of incurring debt.
Kathy Carver, a professor of nursing, said she was “energized” by DeVos’ tour of the school’s health care simulator, which allows nursing students to take care of model patients in a simulated hospital environment.
“I think we’re being a little innovative in terms of how we go about preparing our students,” Carver said.
Others attendees were more concerned about her stances on public education. Democratic state Rep. Cindy Holscher, whose district includes JCCC, delivered a written statement to DeVos and carried written statements on behalf of area education advocacy groups StandUp Blue Valley, Education First Shawnee Mission, Game on for Kansas Schools and the Mainstream Coalition.
“To say she and I are on different pages in regard to our view of public education is probably an understatement,” Holscher said.
A group of protesters also gathered on the sidewalk near the campus before DeVos’ arrival. Paffi Flood, who serves on the executive board of Indivisible KC, said she was there with about 75 Indivisible KC members, current and retired educators and students. She said protesters also plan Friday to be at DeVos’ visit to Kansas City Academy.
DeVos’ critics, including Flood, contend that school choice policies would undercut public schools’ ability to serve all students.
“The problem with vouchers or tax credits or whatever you want to call those is that they really end up fencing students away from the public schools and they end up funneling funding away from public schools,” said Leah Filter, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Filter said private schools that accept vouchers often have admissions requirements and only allow high-performing students in, leaving higher-need students and those with special needs behind.
“The students don’t choose the school,” Filter said. “What ends up happening is that the schools choose the students.”
Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of the National Education Association, said he thought DeVos had “not shown herself to be a friend of public education.”
Dave Trabert, a lobbyist for conservative free-market think tank Kansas Policy Institute, said he thought school choice allowed students a way out of low-performing public schools. He advocated giving schools publicly available grades based on their performance, giving staff members bonuses when schools perform well and giving students the opportunity to leave low-performing schools.
Gray said the event was made to be as student-focused as possible.
“It wasn’t faculty. It wasn’t staff,” Gray said. “It was really her learning from the students firsthand why they’re there, what they’re here to accomplish, what their struggles are.”