SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos reiterated her push for school choice during an annual education technology conference in Utah Tuesday, comparing the issue to being able to switch between phone service providers.
She said there are many great cell phone companies, but people have the option to pick which one they want to use.
“If you can’t get cell phone service in your living room, then your particular provider is failing you,” she told hundreds of people in a packed auditorium in Salt Lake City during her keynote speech. “You should have the option to find a network that does work.”
Outside, dozens of protesters pushed back against DeVos’ education policies, including her emphasis on school choice, saying it threatens public education.
Kellie Henderson, a protester and co-founder of the activist group Utah Indivisible, said she couldn’t afford the nearly $3,000 conference tickets, but is concerned with DeVos’ support of school choice because it could take money from public education.
“Most of the people in this state are publicly educated and they want to preserve that and not take away funding,” she said.
DeVos, a billionaire heiress who was nominated by Trump for education secretary despite having no experience as a teacher or school administrator, has raised and contributed millions of dollars to support the push for giving parents choices on where their children go to school.
But while some school-choice supporters want to use it to improve public schools, DeVos wants to go further by allowing tax money to flow to private schools through vouchers, government-funded scholarships or corporate tax credits.
In 2015, less than 1 percent of children in kindergarten through high school used vouchers to attend private schools in 2015, according to the Department of Education.
Jeanne Allen, of the Center for Education Reform, which advocates for charter schools, asked DeVos during the “fireside chat” portion of the event why she thought she had received so much criticism about her policies.
The education secretary said it’s likely because people are afraid of change.
“I think there is a very large status quo defense that will stop at almost nothing to try to defend a system that is really pretty antiquated,” said DeVos.
Her speech was part of the ASU + GSV Summit, a conference by Arizona State University and the Global Silicon Valley, which invests in innovative companies.
DeVos attributed her commitment to school choice to a small Christian school that served a low income population, which she visited when her oldest son was attending kindergarten. DeVos said for every student who attended the school, there were at least 10 more who wanted to attend, which she called a “very unjust situation.”
Earlier in the day, DeVos visited a Salt Lake City technical school for high school students. The Salt Lake Tribune reports she praised Utah’s commitment to vocational-training.
On Wednesday, DeVos is scheduled to visit the historically black university Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, where she is expected to give the commencement address.
She was criticized earlier this year for calling historically black colleges “pioneers” of school choice. She later acknowledged that the schools were created because African-Americans had been excluded from predominantly white schools.