CASPER, Wyo. — Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos praised Natrona County's policy of school choice Tuesday in Casper while urging nationwide educators to move away from what she called an outdated model for educating students.
"It's time to rethink schools," she said. "For far too many kids, this year's first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year's first day back to school. And the year before that, and the generation before that, and the generation before that."
DeVos walked through the doors of Woods Learning Center in central Casper on Tuesday morning to a chorus of boos from the more than 30 protesters standing on a hill outside the building. It's her first stop on a six-state, Midwest and Western "Rethink Schools" tour. Officials said the visit has been in the works for a couple of weeks but became concrete late last week. Rita Walsh, the vice-chairwoman of the school board, said she learned of the visit Monday.
DeVos chose the Natrona County School District — and Woods Learning Center in particular — because of its innovative approach. Natrona County is a district of choice, meaning students have the opportunity to attend any school in the county. Woods Learning Center, meanwhile, features a 26-year-old program in which multiple grade levels learn in the same classroom and a group of teachers run the school, instead of a principal. Students also have a say in what they learn.
"The people here have begun to rethink school in a really significant way and are really looking to meet the needs of students wherever they are," DeVos told reporters.
Max D'Onofrio, spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi, said the senator's office "helped provide a bit of of local knowledge, background, and contact information for Wyoming schools." But he said the selections were based off the department's own work in the state and Enzi did not recommend Woods.
It isn't DeVos' first time talking about Wyoming schools. During her confirmation hearing earlier this year, she famously said some schools here may need guns to protect themselves from bears. On Tuesday, protesters brought teddy bears, and Casper resident Cheryl Parlett carried a sign that said "Yogi Bear says no to guns."
DeVos toured several classrooms at Woods, spending time with fourth- and fifth-graders as they circled up and talked about how they were feeling. Then she walked to a kindergarten and first-grade classroom, where students were making cats out of colored paper.
After DeVos left, one girl — who looked apprehensively at the cameras and adults crowding the back of the classroom — whispered to her friend, "She actually talked to us."
At her speech later Tuesday morning, she praised Natrona County School District for recognizing that different students have different needs.
"Open enrollment gives families the opportunities to find the schools that are best for them and their children," she said in her speech. "Students, your parents know you best. And they are in the best position to select the best learning environment for you."
In which direction DeVos thinks schools need to move is unclear, other than away from the current system, which she derided as an outdated model from Prussia ("Can you find Prussia on a map?" she asked).
DeVos — previously a Michigan-based philanthropist who strongly supported voucher programs and charter schools — didn't mention those programs during her speech. But she said many educators are stuck in old ways of teaching students, with rows of desks and a teacher at the front of the class.
"Today, there is a whole industry of naysayers who vow to defend something they call the education system," she said. "What's an education system? There's no such thing. Are you guys systems? No, you're individual students."
She added that teachers and parents know more about student needs than "so-called education professionals who are often staunch defenders of the status quo."
In an interview with media after the speech, DeVos was asked whether she thought a voucher program or charter schools were viable in a small, rural state where half of the districts have less than a thousand students, and many have less than 500. She said that all districts — even small ones — sometimes need to take a step back and evaluate what's working and what isn't.
"I always think that having more choices for parents to make to really find the right education for each of their children is really important," she said. "And it's also up to the people of every state to decide how that happens. But what is not negotiable is the notion that every child should have an equal opportunity to get a great education."
After DeVos left, the remaining protesters specifically criticized DeVos' past support for vouchers and charter schools. Jane Ifland, the coordinator for progressive group Indivisible Casper, was holding a sign that said "rethink vouchers."
She called the voucher program a "profound anti-American concept" and that tax dollars in America should support public education, rather than private institutions.
Ifland also took issue with DeVos' recent decision to re-examine how sexual assault investigations are handled on college campuses, apparently with an eye toward respecting the rights of the accused. While details of the review and what DeVos wants the new system to be remain unclear, DeVos has called sexual assault investigations -- which were altered and the burden of proof lowered under the Obama administration — a "failed system."
During a press conference with media at Woods, DeVos said it was a tough issue but that "the reality is that the current system doesn't do right for all students and by all students, and we need to get it right for all students."
DeVos traveled to the Wind River Reservation and St. Stephens Indian School on Tuesday afternoon. Her tour will also include stops in Lincoln, Nebraska; Missouri, Indiana, Kansas and Colorado.