U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos brought her message about school choice to a group of 400 supporters on June 26 at James Irwin Charter School in Colorado Springs.

DeVos, speaking at Parents Challenge’s 20th anniversary celebration, urged parents and choice advocates to support a scholarship program that has been proposed in Congress, which she said could yield $60 million for Colorado students.

Parents Challenge, founded by local developer and longtime school choice advocate Steve Schuck and his wife Joyce, provides privately raised funds to enable parents to enroll their students in the schools that work best for their families. It seeks to empower parents to take responsibility for their children’s education by providing them with information, personal resources and support to make the choice.

DeVos’ views coincide with that mission. She has made school choice — which she prefers to call education freedom — a centerpiece of her work.

“I like education freedom because it opens up our vision about what education can be beyond buildings,” she said.

The 400 by-invitation-only attendees — and presumably DeVos and her entourage — had to pass through a gauntlet of protesters clustered around the intersection of Powers and Astrozon boulevards.

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The protesters were kept far away from the VIP parking area and the event venue itself — the James Irwin school gym. Inside, the attendees applauded and cheered as DeVos said, “Right now, education freedom is available to some in this country. It’s time it’s available to all.”

Many unfilled jobs

In welcoming remarks, Mayor John Suthers sounded a theme that would be reiterated by several speakers, including DeVos.

“Education is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Suthers said.

“Frankly, Colorado has been a leader in school choice, and here in Colorado Springs we are privileged to have many excellent options for families as they look to prepare their children for the future,” he said. “Regardless of whether parents choose one of the nine traditional public school districts in our region, or a private, parochial, charter, magnet, innovation, online or home school, this diversity of opportunity is essential to develop our future productive citizens.”

Suthers said there are nearly 13,000 job openings currently in the Pikes Peak region with a median salary of $80,000.

“The problem is, many of the 12,000 local people looking for work don’t have the job skills to fill many of these jobs in fields ranging from cybersecurity to software engineering and health care, to sales and construction trades.”

Introducing DeVos, Schuck said he and his wife have worked with the education secretary and have been friends with the DeVoses for many years.

“They have a lifelong dedication to providing quality education for all kids,” Schuck said. “Betsy is bright, thoughtful, strategic, courageous, focused. But you will never see in the news what those of us who know her and what we admire in her — her extraordinary generosity, humanity, compassion and concern for those less fortunate.

“It’s often said that one is best defined by his or her critics and adversaries. Betsy has a blue-ribbon list of those — U.S. senators, teachers union spokespeople, a few of whom you drove past this morning, and media talking heads. But those naysayers don’t hold a candle to the fans, supporters and admirers, 400 of whom are in this room today.”

DeVos and Parents Challenge Executive Director Deborah Hendrix sought to dispel the notion that education freedom is about promoting private over public schools.

“We’re not against public schools,” Hendrix said. “We just want to make it clear we’re for the freedom to choose. We want parents to understand that it is your decision and there are so many choices.”

DeVos said Education Freedom Scholarships, a tax credit program that she called “the biggest, boldest plan yet for students,” could generate $60 million in additional funding for “students and scholarships, not buildings,” in Colorado. These scholarships could be used for purposes from tutoring and career technical education, to dual enrollment or transportation to a different school.

“I believe education freedom is the most meaningful way we can improve achievement in this country,” she said. “Our proposal isn’t about pitting one type of school against another. It’s about empowering parents and families to make choices previously available only to the wealthy, the powerful and the well connected. … This will be a game changer.”

DeVos said Parents Challenge has provided almost $2 million to more than 2,000 students to pursue an education that works for them.

“Your work together serves as an important reminder that the best solutions to what limits students are not developed in the distant Capitol by politicians. Solutions that work are developed at kitchen tables or between neighbors or in houses of worship or in town halls,” she said.

“If we embrace education freedom, every student can pursue an education that best aligns with their talent, their passions and their purpose,” DeVos said. “By your example, you have issued a challenge to the rest of Colorado and to the rest of the country: Do more for students and fight for freedom for all students. … I’m excited to see what the next 20 years will bring.”

She earned more applause and cheers from the audience when she said, “I’ve spent more than 30 years fighting alongside you for our nation’s students, and I’m not done yet.”

Protesters take offense

Outside the school, nearly 100 protesters carried signs and chanted slogans. The demonstrators’ signs and chants didn’t mince words; “Toss DeVos” and “Betsy is bad for children,” read some of the milder ones. Other signs sported coarser language and images.

Organized by the Pikes Peak Education Association and Colorado Education Association, the groups were composed of educators and parents from across the state. Their main message to DeVos was one she has heard before.

Retired District 11 elementary school teacher Jane Neff put it succinctly.

“Stop trying to tear down public education,” Neff said.

“Our biggest issue is with her agenda of taking money and moving to defund public education and promote charters and voucher systems,” said Pikes Peak Education Association President Phyllis Robinette, president of the Pikes Peak Education Association and a second-grade teacher in Lewis-Palmer District 38.

“More choice is a masquerade to take money from public education and give it to people in the private sector,” Robinette said. “We continue to see our students impacted each and every day because of the lower funding we’re receiving. My school is affected by cutting our funds, which lessens the services we can give to struggling readers … and providing support to some of our most impacted kids.”

The rally attracted several candidates running for local offices.

Randi McCallian, who is running for the state Senate District 10 seat in northeast Colorado Springs currently held by Republican Owen Hill, said she thinks DeVos is pushing to defund public schools.

“We’ve seen some examples around the country of when school districts lost money to charter schools, and it really impacts the children in the public education system and the teachers that are losing money to those private schools that are trying to make a profit off education,” McCallian said. “There should be no profit off of education.”

Jillian Freeland, who is challenging Rep. Doug Lamborn for his U.S. House District 5 seat, showed up as well.

“Mrs. DeVos is not an educator … and so many of her decisions have just been against the needs of what our educators and students need,” Freeland said. “By using voucher systems to pull money out of our public school systems, we’re weakening them.”