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Education Secretary DeVos kicks off west coast school tour in McMinnville

Protesters outside McMinnville HS ahead of Education Secretary Betsy Devos' visit - KATU photo by reporter Keaton Thomas.jpg

MCMINNVILLE, Ore. – U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with students and educators Wednesday afternoon at McMinnville High School, kicking off a tour of west coast schools over the next few days, but during the visit more than 200 protesters filled the sidewalk outside.

DeVos observed a staff development session with teachers at the beginning of her tour. They discussed the strategies that teachers use to prepare their students for college and the 21st century. Later, she toured three classrooms to see teachers put those strategies to us.

Before Wednesday, many wondered why a cabinet-level official chose to visit a high school in a small town in Oregon.

"The reason that I came to this school, I read a pretty engaging article about how the results here have been significantly better for students and I wanted to understand why, and find out a little more why," said DeVos.

The McMinnville School District is known nationally for it's STEM program. McMinnville High School is consistently among the top high schools in Oregon for students who earn college credit.

The high school is also known for it's success in closing the education gap.

Superintendent Maryalice Russel says Hispanic students make up their largest minority group in the district, but students who completed their English Language program equally or better than all other students in the district.

The secretary said she was extremely impressed with her visit.

“It is a great honor for a school to be recognized at any time. And so, when someone is interested in learning what you are doing that is working well, you know we want to be able to share that information,” said Maryalice Russel, McMinnville School District superintendent.

Meanwhile, more than 200 people protested on the sidewalks outside the high school during the visit. Parents and educators were among those protesting.

"I would really love to see that the public school funding is focused toward the children and not for the businesses trying to run the school," said Kristian Sorbo, a doctor at Carlton Veterinary Hospital.

Critics of DeVos are concerned that she is working against public schools by furthering the privatization of education. She also recently caused controversy after she announced her department will rescind Obama-era campus sexual assault guidelines.

Specifically, protesters are wary of the secretary's support of charter schools and a school voucher program.

"That system simply isn't a good system. The public system is certainly the best type of education that a student can get, we hope Secretary DeVos sees that," said John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association, a teacher's union.

Larson also came to protest any possible cuts to the K-12 education budget. He says he is particularly worried about slashing funds for professional development, part of what he says makes McMinnville High School so successful.

When asked about the protesters, DeVos said, "I want to see every single child in this country have an equal opportunity to get a great education, regardless what type of education it is. I think we should focus less on what word comes before school, and more on what we're doing to make sure each individual child has the opportunity to become everything that they can be."

DeVos says she wants to think of education as an investment in students, rather than investment into a system. The voucher program that she supports allows for school choice, letting students and parents decide which school they want to go to.

When asked if a program like that would affect a school like McMinnville High School, DeVos said it would not, provided the students and parents are happy with the education they are getting there.

The secretary started a west coast tour in McMinnville. She will visit schools near San Jose, California and Seattle, Washington within the next two days.

Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici released a statement in response to DeVos' visit:

“I welcome Secretary DeVos to Oregon. It is my hope that the Secretary’s visit to McMinnville High School will demonstrate the potential of public education and inspire her to work with Congress to pass and implement policies that will lead to all our country’s public schools getting the funding and support they need to help every student succeed.

“The McMinnville School District is a leader in providing students with a well-rounded education, and was recently recognized for exceeding expectations with a significant population of low-income students. I’ve had the opportunity to visit the District’s summer meals program, which provides students with healthy meals so they are prepared to learn. And McMinnville’s career and technical education programs – including the Engineering & Aerospace Science Academy – are engaging students and preparing them for success in and after high school, regardless of what path they take. The District works hard to make sure its teachers are highly skilled and have the tools they need to focus on every student.

“I went to public schools, my children attended public schools, and when I visit public schools in Oregon I’m inspired by the dedicated educators and the students who are the future of our country. Strengthening public education was the primary reason I got involved in public service, and remains one of my top priorities. As a relative newcomer to the world of public education, Secretary DeVos would do well to educate herself about the strengths and challenges of our diverse public education system. Unfortunately, in her short tenure as head of the Education Department she has been focused on undermining our public schools, not strengthening them. She continues to advocate for privatizing public education, cutting education funding, and rolling back civil rights protections for students.

“And although I’m glad that Secretary DeVos is going to visit a thriving public school in the district I’m honored to represent, I also wish she would visit Congress. It’s been eight months since she was sworn in as Secretary of Education, but she has yet to appear before the House Education Committee. As a leader on the Committee, I’m eager to hear directly from the Secretary about her plans to strengthen public education and provide equal access and opportunity for all students regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or zip code.”

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