DeVos Urges ‘Something Radically Different’ in Back-to-School Tour Kickoff in Wyoming

Betsy DeVos chats with students during a school visit.

Updated Sept. 13

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos started her “rethink school” tour in Wyoming Tuesday, encouraging a total reshuffle in how the American education system is set up, starting with school choice.

She began the tour at Woods Learning Center in Casper, a K-8 school where students in several grade levels learn in one classroom, and the school is run by a group of teachers instead of a principal. It’s also in a district of choice that lets student attend any school in the county.

“I think it’s terrific the way this community has come together to decide they’re going to empower local school buildings and empower the teachers to do what they do best in the classroom, and we want to highlight that, we want to feature that and help others think in that same way,” DeVos told local NBC affiliate KCWY early Tuesday morning ahead of the visit.

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Never-changing U.S. school systems create “a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons, and denies futures,” DeVos said in a speech at Woods Learning Center.

She compared the United States’ academic performance in relation to global competitors to the country not winning gold, or any medals at all, at the Olympics.

“If we’re going to go for the gold, so to speak, we must change our training regimen,” she said. “We’re going to need to do something radically different.”

Changing the education system means taking a hard look at everything we do and studying the results, DeVos said.

“Rethinking school means embracing dramatic change, even if it is hard and even if it is scary,” she added.

In response to questions from the students at Woods, DeVos said it would be up to teachers and school leaders to start rethinking school, “because I don’t have all the answers and the people I work with in Washington don’t have all the answers.”

That change, though, should start with “the opportunity for every kid, every child, to go to a school that is going to fit their kind of personality and the way that they learn,” she added.

DeVos’s second stop of the day was at the St. Stephens Indian High School on the Wind River Reservation. The school is run by tribal leaders and funded by the Bureau of Indian Education, the long-troubled federal agency in charge of education on Indian reservations.

The department did not livestream any of DeVos’s visit there. She visited a second-grade classroom and a home economics class and watched a high school science activity that used toilet paper as a scale model for the solar system, according to tweets from Billings Gazette reporter Matt Hoffman. There was also an assembly with a drum circle.

In Casper, DeVos was met with protesters, including some who brought teddy bears, the Casper Star Tribune reported. During her confirmation hearings, DeVos famously remarked that some Wyoming schools might need to keep guns on campus to protect against grizzly bears. Protesters also criticized her support of charters and private school vouchers and her recent decision to alter standards for sexual assault investigations on campuses.

In response to a question from the press about the viability of charters and vouchers in a rural state with many small districts, DeVos said all districts need to take a step back and re-evaluate their practices.

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“I always think that having more choices for parents to make to really find the right education for each of their children is really important,” DeVos said, according to the Star Tribune. It’s up to each state how that happens, but what isn’t negotiable is that every student should have “an equal opportunity to get a great education,” she added.

DeVos concluded her day in Colorado. In Denver, she met with local leaders “about their commitment to workforce development and creating opportunities for students,” she wrote on Twitter.

She ended the day in Littleton, where she went to a picnic with homeschool families.

“These dedicated families have selected the educational environment that they think best meets the needs of their own children. We should not stand in the way of their decision, but instead support and applaud the choices families make for their kids,” she wrote in a post on Medium.

On Wednesday, DeVos will visit Firefly Autism House in Denver, the school attended by Endrew F., the plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court ruling on special education, from earlier this year, which set a more rigorous education standard for children with special needs. She will also go to the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs. The elite military academy was ranked No. 26 among national liberal arts colleges in the latest rankings by U.S. News and World Report, released this week.

In the evening, she’ll tour Midland University, a liberal arts college in Nebraska. Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, was formerly its president. After Nebraska, she is expected to visit Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana.

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