When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos paid a visit to Kansas City Academy on Friday, there were more protesters outside than students inside. Perhaps 150 people, including some alumni of the private school, enjoyed a fine late- summer morning while hoisting handmade signs for the TV cameras. Some placards denounced the secretary’s support for vouchers, a long-standing cause for the billionaire activist. Others disapproved of her decisions to rescind Obama-era guidance on gender-neutral restrooms and campus sexual-assault policies. More light-hearted were the signs tweaking DeVos for saying guns in the classroom can protect students in the rural West from grizzly bears.
DeVos was nearing the end of her week-long “Rethink Schools” tour, which took her to diverse classrooms across six states, some public, some private, all innovative. To her credit, she did not limit herself to the sort of schools where a conservative Christian from the Trump administration could rely on a friendly reception — even though such places would be easy to find in the Western and Midwestern states she visited.
Kansas City Academy is definitely not among them. The college preparatory school enrolls just 76 students in grades six to 12 and works wonders with creative, intelligent kids who have trouble fitting in at larger schools. Heavy emphasis on arts, the environment and social justice makes it an attractive option for progressive families. School lunches are farm-to-table.
News that DeVos had asked to pay a visit “shocked and scared” the Academy community, a recent graduate, Megan Ennis, told me: “Scared of someone coming in the school who disagrees with just about everything they believe.” Bathrooms at the Academy, for example, are trans-friendly, Ennis said. One student announced she would stay home rather than share space with “a demon.” Others decided to decorate the school with posters that reflect the school’s inclusive spirit.
Senior Elly Martinez captioned hers: “I am the gay witch the Christians warned you about.”
But as she pinched out a clay pot in the ceramics room and whipped up a veggie burger in the culinary room, DeVos was a living reminder that people who disagree about some things don’t have to disagree on everything. DeVos agrees passionately with one of the founding concepts of Kansas City Academy and the other schools around the country that practice “Expeditionary Learning.” That is: Not all students learn in the same way or thrive in the same settings. This realization has sparked innovation in schools over the past generation. But it poses obvious challenges to traditional public schools that group students by geographical boundaries rather than individual needs.
DeVos painted a grim picture of those schools in a speech in Wyoming at the start of her tour. “Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar,” she said. “Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the ‘average’ student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine — just waiting to be saved by the bell. It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons and denies futures.”
Tiger Baker, a senior at Kansas City Academy, would agree with her about that. Before he transferred as a sophomore, Baker attended a nearby public school populated with “kids whose parents couldn’t afford a good school,” he told me after the visit. The school “was monitored like a prison,” staffed by “overwhelmed” teachers, and had “no room for creativity. I was always getting in trouble,” he said.
DeVos finished her 90-minute visit by answering questions from students in government class, where she made a warm impression on students who had found her mean and forbidding on YouTube. Baker said that “she was personally nice, respectful — kind of a mom thing. I loved being able to talk to her personally.” When he asked the secretary why she chose his school to visit, DeVos replied that she admired the school’s approach to nurturing individuality.
The rub, of course, is tuition and school fees: more than $12,000.
Fifty years ago, Kansas City Public Schools enrolled more than 70,000 students. Today, attendance is about one-fifth of that. Parents with the money or other wherewithal to escape those schools have gone, leaving the district to struggle as provider of last resort. And that’s a far more difficult assignment, frankly, than even the transformational work done by schools such as Kansas City Academy.
It comes down to that last cohort, who have large needs but minimal resources. Critics of DeVos would spend more even as public schools fail students such as Baker. The secretary would rather give a voucher to parents and let them shop for a better fit.
The difference is means, not ends.