U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited Johnson County Community College on Thursday as part of a weeklong tour and praised the college’s job training programs.
“It’s part of our Rethink School tour that is focusing on innovation and creativity in education,” DeVos told reporters after she visited with students and faculty at the school.
Meanwhile, across the street from the campus, more than 50 protesters rallied at College Boulevard and Quivira Road to criticize what they see as DeVos’ attack on public education and her excessive support for private and for-profit schools.
“To me, public school is the glue that holds our democracy together, so I’m here to support public school and the continuation of the public school system,” said Sara Kircher of Prairie Village.
DeVos said this week’s tour was designed to highlight “what’s working” in education. She has visited schools in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska and on Friday plans a stop at the Kansas City Academy, a small private school in the Waldo neighborhood that’s known for its approach to arts education.
At Johnson County Community College she observed students including Daniel Ward, a 25-year-old student who already has a job building police cars but is enhancing his skills with the automotive technology program.
“Technical schools aren’t getting the attention they need,” Ward said, adding that applied science programs can be just as beneficial as a four-year college degree. “We’re learning something we’re going to use on a daily basis.”
DeVos praised JCCC and other schools that are partnering with local industry to meet the need for highly skilled employees.
She has been a champion of charter schools and voucher programs, but that also has made her something of a lightning rod for criticism from advocates for regular public schools.
Kansas state Rep. Cindy Holscher, a Johnson County Democrat whose district includes the college, said in a statement Thursday: “Kansas students rate well in most national measures because of its past commitment to public education for all.”
Holscher said an emphasis on charter schools and vouchers can undermine the broader public education system that serves 90 percent of American students, causing student achievement to stall and leading to a teacher shortage.
DeVos’ visit to the Kansas City region comes the same month that she announced plans to roll back campus sexual assault guidelines adopted under the Obama administration. DeVos contended last week that the guidelines had failed to protect the rights of accused students.
Missouri Democrats criticized the move in a phone call with reporters Thursday. “DeVos’ proposal strips the protections away and leaves the students who are victims of sexual assault with nowhere to turn,” said state Rep. Judy Morgan, a Kansas City Democrat.
DeVos did not address the sexual assault issue in her remarks Thursday evening, but said she wants to promote all types of successful education strategies. She said she has highlighted a wide variety of schools, including traditional public schools, on her tour.
“I would hope we could focus less on what word comes before school,” she said, “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.”