U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Gives One Oregon High School a Brief and Muted Visit

Protesters say DeVos' charter-school policies are a threat to success stories like McMinnville High. She says that's bunk.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visits McMinnville High School (Anna Williams)

This afternoon's hour-long visit from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to McMinnville High School, just 40 miles southwest of Portland, was met with quiet resistance.

A crowd of around 200 protesters, many of them former McMinnville High students or teachers union members, lined up behind the school building. A dozen or so counter-protesters, some in ultra-patriotic garb, formed their own cluster adjacent to the main crowd.

DeVos did not come to McMinnville to engage, however. The secretary silently observed a staff development meeting and three 7th-period classes for less than 15 minutes each. She then gave carefully crafted answers to press for two minutes before leaving.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (left) visits McMinnville High School (Anna Williams)

"I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience observing the classrooms," DeVos says. "The students [are] actively engaged and all of them [are] focused on also learning twenty-first century skills as they are entering the adult world."

During the peer-to-peer staff development meeting, McMinnville High School Principal Tony Vicknair whispered to DeVos, guiding her through the poster of "High Leverage Strategies" from which all teachers base their teaching methods.

Staff wrote down their favorite teaching practices, then discussed with their neighbor how these methods have impacted their classrooms. DeVos listened as biology teacher Audrey Wright shared her go-to teaching strategies.

DeVos says she wanted to visit McMinnville High School because she read an article about McMinnville School District's high standardized test scores. The district, one of the 20 largest in the state, serves a nearly 60% low income student demographic.

"We're proud of our students and proud of our staff," says McMinnville High  spokesperson Laurie Fry. Fry says McMinnville High wants to share the success of its district with the rest of the country, adding that she hopes DeVos saw "good practices that can inform national policy."

Protesters, however, want McMinnville High to get national recognition for its teaching methods, not just because DeVos made an appearance.

Protesters demonstrate against Betsy DeVos’ visit to McMinnville High School (Anna Williams)

"I understand that [McMinnville High School] should get recognized for the work that they are doing" says Yamhill County Democrats Chair Stephanie Findley. But, Findley adds, hard-working public school teachers at McMinnville High "don't deserve" to have money taken away from public schools and "filtered to charter schools and school vouchers."

DeVos, a strong proponent of charter schools and the "school choice" movement, recently defended President Donald Trump's cutting the Department of Education budget by over 15 percent.

Local charter school student and counter-protester Noah Gunn supports private school vouchers, however. Gunn says McMinnville High School "failed" to accommodate his ADHD, but at his online charter school, Gunn says he can get one-on-one help for the subjects he struggles in.

Gunn, who identifies as "moderate right-wing," was in the minority.

Protesters from McMinnville, Newberg, Portland, and even as far as White Salmon, Wash. organized their protest in less than two days. Angry posts about DeVos' visit spread like wildfire on Facebook since Monday evening.

Among those protesting were the Portland Association of Teachers, the Oregon Education Association, and a homeschool family from Keizer who wanted to show support for public education.

In the two minutes DeVos talked with reporters, she deflected a question of how moving funding to school vouchers could build more schools like McMinnville High.

"The hope is that choices would be afforded to all parents for their children to find a school that fits and works for them" DeVos says. "And it would not impact a school like [McMinnville High], provided all of the students and all of the parents are happy with the school and how it is working for them."

Asked what DeVos would say to protesters who don't believe she supports public schools, DeVos answered "I do support public education, so that's just false to begin with."

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