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Crowds Expected As Education Secretary DeVos Speaks In Bellevue

Andrew Harnik
AP Photo
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos waves as she steps away from the podium after speaking at the White House Summit on Historically Black Colleges and Universities on Sept. 18, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is expected to draw large crowds when she speaks Friday evening at the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue.

She is speaking at the Washington Policy Center's sold-out gala, where the minimum ticket price was $350, though the group says tickets for people in its Young Professionals program were $50 and some college students will attend for free. The organization is expecting 1,500 people for DeVos's first visit to Washington state as education secretary.

Critics of DeVos are also planning to gather outside of the hotel to protest her appearance. The education secretary has been criticized for her support of charter schools and vouchers. 

KNKX youth and education reporter Ashley Gross describes the controversy:

She's a very wealthy Republican political donor from Michigan. And I think the main controversy boils down to...that people feel like she doesn't support the traditional public school system. She herself attended a private Christian school. Her kids have not gone to public school. And people are concerned that she just doesn't have enough knowledge of the traditional public school system, and that she's out to kind of tear it apart.

For example, DeVos has been criticized for pushing an charter school law in Michigan that many say has not worked to help kids do better in school. She also supports the use of publicly funded vouchers for parents to use for private school tuition.

These questions came up while she was being confirmed, which ultimately happened when Vice President Mike Pence cast a historic tie-breaking vote to add DeVos to the president's cabinet.

Washington state Republican Party Chairman Susan Hutchison has also called for counter-protesters at Friday's event in support of DeVos.

Charter Schools In Washington

Charter schools are still fairly new in Washington. There are 10 of them in the state now, five years after voters narrowly passed an initiative that allowed them.

Since 2012, the law has been going back and forth in the courts. The state Supreme Court ruled that the initiative was unconstitutional in 2015.

The Legislature has since changed the law, specifically the way charter schools are funded. But that is also being legally challenged, currently on appeal before the state Supreme Court.

That hasn't stopped charter schools from opening in Washington.

Parents who send their kids to charter schools here cite a few reasons why they prefer them over traditional public schools. Some say they're worried about their child falling through the cracks at large public middle or high schools. Others say they like the way some charters organize their educational philosophy.

However, many of these parents do not support DeVos despite her advocacy of charter schools.

Juli Coburn has two sons at Summit Sierra in Seattle's International District. Her concerns echo what others have said about DeVos' lack of experience with public schools:

I really, really wish that the choice had been made for someone who I would have felt would have been more understanding and knowledgeable about public school, the challenges that most families face with public education.

But Gross notes the Washington Policy Center has said it's important to hear from DeVos:

They say that she is in a position to shape a lot of federal policy that affects us here in Washington state. They say it's important for us to understand her approach and what she envisions for the office.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.