SALT LAKE CITY – A well-heeled crowd of venture capitalists, investment bankers and educators sat quietly in a cavernous ballroom, listening to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos repeat themes she sounds regularly: Choice is good, government is bad, kids are trapped in failing schools.
Outside the Grand America Hotel on Tuesday it was a different story: More than 100 protestors complained that DeVos is against public education, a perception that’s dogged the wealthy Republican donor since the historic tie-breaking vote put her in a job she had little experience for.
“We want someone who will actually be good for education and is not just in their seat basically because they have money and influence,’’ said protestor Kellie Henderson, of Utah Indivisible, an anti-Trump resistance group.
DeVos’ appearance at ASU+GSV, the annual tech and investment conference known as “Davos by the Desert,” gave her an unprecedented opportunity to speak with a non-confrontational audience on innovation and technology in schools.
She didn’t take it, however, and never went beyond the usual talking points about expanding school choice as the best option for helping children stuck in struggling schools. And there was no audience Q&A.
Instead, the crowd, which included people from hundreds of companies deeply involved in “disrupting” the education landscape, settled for hearing DeVos liken choosing a school to switching phone carriers: If schools aren’t meeting children’s needs, they are “failing that child,” she said.
“Think of it like your cell phone, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile,’’ she said. “They all have great networks, but if you can’t get cell phone service in your living room, then that particular provider is failing you.”
DeVos got no pushback; she was questioned by one of her most ardent supporters, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, who threw one softball after another, such as: “What would you say to people about technology?”
DeVos gave an unrevealing reply to an audience steeped in the dense jargon of learning tools and new ways of thinking about the future.
“We’ve just scratched the surface in the role technology can play,” DeVos answered. “I only have to look at my young grandchildren to see how powerful tech is. It is a thousand flowers, and we haven’t planted the whole garden.”
Brothers and his colleagues came to show off new research; they’ve mapped some 5,000 ed-tech companies that represent over $40 billion of investment from more than 50 countries. Brothers wished DeVos would provide insight into questions that matter greatly to him.
“Education has so much more potential than it is delivering today,’’ Brothers said.
“What will be different about education five years from now? Give us someone we can look up to that will help us collaborate,” he added. “Isn’t that the role of the most senior leadership education official in the U.S.? It’s incumbent on her to provide the vision.”
That mattered less to Robyn Bagley, board chairman of Parents for Choice in Utah, who loved what DeVos had to say.
“She really resonated with me,” said Bagley, a mother of four. “I’m of the same mindset as far as putting the needs of the students first and empowering parents.”
And DeVos was not without at least one clear vision: keeping Washington at bay. “It’s time to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education,” she said. “Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts.”
Perhaps in part because she hasn’t articulated a more detailed vision for the nation’s education system, DeVos was a minor player at the crowded conference.
The eight-year-old gathering is as much about networking and deal-making as it is about discussing education, and bills itself as “a chance to be seen and heard by people who want to change the world, whether you want to raise the funds for your startup, meet potential employees or connect with others to share ideas.”
DeVos might have made her appearance far more useful to the crowd if she had followed through on an idea she introduced early on in her speech, when said: “I’ve always envisioned that these conferences should be flipped around. Rather than the government official standing on stage and talking at all of you, I should be listening to you and learning about your challenges, opportunities and accomplishments.”
She left the stage, however, without doing any such thing.
Matt Bruderle contributed to this story
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.