Betsy DeVos Q&A: On undocumented students, Jeb Bush, bilingualism and other issues

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reads Dr. Seuss to kindergarten students at Royal Palm Elementary in Miami on Friday, April 7, 2017.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reads Dr. Seuss to kindergarten students at Royal Palm Elementary in Miami on Friday, April 7, 2017.

President Donald Trump’s education secretary spent two days in Miami this week, her first full trip with stops at a variety of schools and colleges since taking office.

Betsy DeVos was a controversial pick because of her advocacy for charter schools and lack of public education experience (she famously raised eyebrows during her Senate confirmation hearing for suggesting guns might be appropriate in remote schools to defend against grizzly bears). But her Friday morning visit to Royal Palm Elementary, a traditional public school in Westwood Lakes, went off without a hitch.

Accompanied by Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who had invited the education secretary to Miami, DeVos visited classrooms and read a Dr. Seuss book to a group of kindergarteners. Then she stopped by Miami Dade College and dropped in on a class for small business owners. She also sat for a brief Q&A with the Miami Herald to talk about hot topics like school choice and immigration. The secretary was cautious in her responses but shared thoughts on bilingual education and protections for undocumented immigrant students. Here are highlights from the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos toured FIU's College of Nursing and Health Science on April 6, 2017.

Q: What do you think about the different education options in Miami?

A: Well, as you know, I was able to visit a wide array of schools and have a variety of experiences in doing so and I think the bottom-line takeaway is what a rich offering of educational options there are in Miami-Dade. I also felt very keenly the intentional collaborative nature of these efforts, and that’s very encouraging.

Q: Jeb Bush is seen as a trailblazer in Florida when it comes to school choice options and is also a friend of yours. Do you share ideas?

A: We have shared many ideas in the past years. I served on the board of the organization he started and our paths have crossed many, many times over the years as we have done work in a variety of states. Our views and our heart for every child is very similar.

Q: Have you been in communication with him since you took on the new role as secretary?

A: He has congratulated me and has reached out on a couple of occasions, too. We’ve touched base only very casually. ... Because I’m no longer on the Excel in Ed board [an organization launched by Jeb Bush], I don’t have regular interaction.

Q: There are a lot of low-income students in Miami-Dade, and initially teachers and administrators here were concerned that they might see big changes in Title I funding [for schools with low-income students] under the new administration. Should they be concerned?

A: I don’t think they should be concerned at all. This administration has a deep commitment to ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity for a great education.

Q: We have a lot of immigrants in Miami, including a lot of undocumented immigrants. Florida is one of the states where undocumented immigrants can get in-state tuition at public universities. Is that something you support?

A: Well, as you well know [immigration] is an issue that’s been widely discussed within the administration and I yesterday referred to [Homeland Security Secretary] Gen. [John F.] Kelly’s comments about the fact that [undocumented] students should not be concerned. They should continue to focus on their studies and continue to pursue their educations. [Kelly recently said apprehending undocumented students is not a priority.]

The administration is very supportive of states setting their direction and I would say that would be consistent here [for in-state tuition], too.

A protester who wished to remain anonymous followed Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, after her tour at FIU and questioned her brother's relationship with the Trump campaign and Russia. Her brother founded Blackwater, a security firm, which

Q: Yesterday, Democratic senators sent you a letter expressing their concern about students who thought they had gotten student loan forgiveness for public service but recently learned that might not be the case. What does your department plan to do to clear up the confusion?

A: That is an issue that is ongoing and one which I have not yet gotten a full report on where we are exactly. That is an issue we continue to be working through, a transition issue from the previous administration.

Q: Miami-Dade has really embraced bilingual education. What are your thoughts on bilingual education?

A: I would just say personally I wish that I could say I was bilingual. I think it’s a huge advantage. Students that do have a command of two languages, it’s a great advantage.

Q: What has it been like to work for President Trump? We see a lot of different reports in the media.

A: He is a very supportive and encouraging boss and I have felt nothing but that support and encouragement since I have had the privilege of being confirmed.

Q: What direction would you like to take the Department of Education? Yesterday you mentioned STEAM or STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] programs.

A: I think the way to state the broadest vision is that every child and every student in America would have an equal opportunity to get a great education and to develop themselves fully.

Q: There are reports that your brother participated in a back-channel meeting brokered by the United Arab Emirates with a Russian businessman close to President Vladimir Putin. Do you have concerns about these reports?

A: I think they’re nothing but reports.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your visit here?

A: It was great to be here, great to see a wide variety of schools including and especially great public schools that are clearly a part of the landscape in Miami.

U.S. Secretary of Education DeVos visited Royal Palm Elementary in Miami with Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools Alberto Carvalho on April 7, 2017.