EAST HARTFORD -- Local leaders are speaking out strongly after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos called East Hartford schools 'a dangerous daycare' during congressional testimony this week.
DeVos' statement on East Hartford went like this:
I recently met a young man, Michael, whose story spoke to me. He grew up in East Hartford, Connecticut, in a low-income neighborhood. He was an average student throughout elementary and middle school but that changed when he reached the district high school. Michael described a school where students were the real ones in charge of the class and they would make it impossible for the teacher to teach. He was constantly bullied to the point he was afraid to even go to the school's bathroom and had constant fear that made him hate school. He described the school he was assigned to as and I quote, 'Nothing more than adult daycare. A dangerous daycare.' Even though he was failing his classes, the school passed him along from year-to-year giving him Ds and sending the not-so-subtle message that they didn't think Michael would amount to much. Michael got a diploma but not an education. Michael followed the path he thought he was destined for, working in a low-skill, low-wage job. But with the encouragement of his wife, he took a course at the local community college to see what was possible for him. He found an environment that was invested in his success and much to his surprise, Michael earned an A. He thought it was a fluke, so he took more classes. Lo and behold - he earned more As and is now in the school's honor program with the goal of working as an emergency room nurse. His success is America's success. Access to a quality education is the path to the american dream. So, I ask to keep Michael and countless other students like him in mind as we go about our shared work to support America's students. No student should feel they attend a dangerous daycare. No child's dream should be limited by the quality or lack thereof of the education they receive.
FOX61 reached out to DeVos' office for the contact information for the student, to speak with him, but they would not provide it for "confidentiality."
East Hartford High School's principal Matthew Ryan said DeVos' comments do not reflect the school as a whole.
"Our school is preparing kids to be ready for college and careers," he said. "We have kids going to UConn, going to Dartmouth, going to Boston University, going to your top colleges and we have 17 kids that are signed up to go to the military."
Ryan said the school is there to provide students with as many opportunities as possible.
He said DeVos' comments opened up the door for dialogue with students, staff and parents. He has started holding meetings with students to get feedback.
Ryan along with the school's superintendent invited DeVos to visit the school to see what it's all about.
Rep. John Larson, a graduate of East Hartford High School and former teacher, joins local educators on inviting her to "see what public education is all about."
"What's troubling to me is when you stereotype and you seek to divide," he said. "Perhaps that wasn’t the secretary’s intent and all the more reason for her to see the baccalaureate school in East Hartford, I’d love for her to see my daughter who teaches at East Hartford High School, just to see how well and efficient but also to understand the problems that not only teachers but parents and communities face."
DeVos refused to say Wednesday whether she would deny federal funds to private schools that discriminate against admitting students based on sexual orientation, race or even special needs.
DeVos has made expanding school choice the centerpiece of the Trump administration's education policy, and recently called opponents of school choice "flat Earthers" who have "chilled creativity" and held American students back.
During a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark brought up a school in Indiana --- Lighthouse Christian Academy --- that receives more than $600,000 in state voucher funds and explicitly denies access to students with LGBT parents in its literature.
President Donald Trump's budget proposal, released on Monday, proposes $250 million for vouchers that would help students get into similar private and religious schools.
At the hearing, Clark asked DeVos whether if Indiana applied for that federal money DeVos would "in this case, say 'we are going to overrule and you cannot discriminate, whether it be on sexual orientation, race, special needs, in our voucher programs.' Will that be a guarantee from you for our students?"
DeVos responded, "For states who have programs that allow for parents to make choices, they set up the rules around that."
"So that's a no," Clark followed up.
Clark narrowed down further, and asked DeVos, "What if (a school) said we are not accepting African-American students, but that was OK with the state... Do you see any situation where you would step in?"
DeVos answered that the Department of Education's "Office of Civil Rights, and our Title IX protections, are broadly applicable across the board."
With her five minutes of questioning ticking down, Clark clarified, "there is no situation of discrimination or exclusion that if a state approved it for its voucher program that you would step in and say that's not how we're going to use federal dollars. ... Is that your testimony?"
DeVos began her response by referring to the real case of Lighthouse Christian Academy as a "hypothetical," before being corrected and adding that, "the bottom line is that we believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices for their children's school and education decisions, and too many children today are trapped in schools that don't work for them. We have to do something different."
"I am shocked that you cannot come up with one example of discrimination that you would stand up for students," Clark finished.
The East Hartford Board of Education chairman Bryan R. Hall sent letter to parents in response Thursday:
Dear East Hartford Families,
Last night you may have heard about some troubling statements made by Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, as she addressed a House Subcommittee regarding the President’s proposed budget. Today we have received an outpouring of support, anger and inspiration regarding the inaccurate portrayal of our school system. In response and in thanks to these statements of public support, I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of “setting the record straight” and loudly proclaim the truth about a school system that has done so much good for my two sons.
At their best, the comments made last night are an inaccurate portrayal of the work done by the staff, students, and families in East Hartford. At their worst, these comments are a dangerous depiction of the experience of a child growing up in a diverse school district. To use an anecdotal account of one student as condemnation of an entire school district can be devastating to the students in our district who hear this and internalize the message that the people they see every day do not care about them.
To simply portray our schools as failing our students and refusing to acknowledge the real structured and systematic barriers that our students have to overcome is short sighted and ill advised. Our schools, like many across the country, face a multitude of challenges and in the face of these problems, I am proud to be a part of a Board of Education and administration that works every day to provide the best opportunities for every child. Our mission is to create schools that are the “Pride of our Community” and we do that by working with our entire community to support our students. If Secretary DeVos were to speak to the members of this community and our students she would find that our schools are not “dangerous daycares” but a pillar of this community.
East Hartford Teacher and East Hartford Education Association President Annie Irvine said in a statement, "Rather than criticize what she doesn’t know, DeVos should focus her attention on providing our schools with the education funding so desperately needed to ensure our teachers have the resources they need to help our students succeed. DeVos represents the opposite of what we know leads to student success: well-resourced public schools and community support services, such as health care and after-school programs, that address the needs of the whole child."
CEA President Sheila Cohen on Devos's said:
Betsy DeVos’s attack on East Hartford Public Schools is alarming, demoralizing, and unwarranted—but not unexpected from a woman who is totally unqualified and unfit to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education, representing the nation’s public education system.
In an attempt to undermine public education in our country and push her privatization policies, she continues to insult the millions of professional educators who dedicate their lives to teaching and empowering students.