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Michael Bennett speaks to high school seniors at Bruce Randolph School in 2017.

Michael Bennett speaks to high school seniors at Bruce Randolph School in 2017.

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet: Betsy DeVos is an ideologue, not the face of education reform

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Friday visited a Denver school with a large immigrant population to quiz students about the current political climate, field their questions and calm their fears.

The setting was Bruce Randolph School, a northeast Denver middle and high school where, last month, a classroom full of middle-schoolers tweeted President Trump with messages about how their immigrant families make America great.

School leadership then visited the Colorado congressional delegation in Washington, including Bennet, to deliver bound copies of those tweets. That led Bennet to return the favor with a school visit.

Students asked the Democratic senator, a former Denver schools superintendent, about immigration policy, the expense of college and federal policy about public lands.

One student posed a simple question for Bennet: “Do you like Mexicans?” (After detailing his family’s Polish immigrant past and his work in Denver Public Schools, he made clear that yes, he does).

Bennet’s message to students on edge about the fates of their loved ones who are undocumented: “Try not to be distracted, and we’ll try to figure this out somehow.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat afterward, Bennet answered questions about what he learned from the school visit, his impressions of Betsy DeVos’s start as U.S. education secretary, his fears about how the Trump administration might undermine the nation’s new education law, and more.

This transcript has been lightly edited.

What did you take away from the school visit today? Did it confirm things you suspected, or open your eyes to anything you hadn’t thought about?

It mostly confirmed what I have heard, which is there are a lot of kids in this school that are worried about what is going on with immigration in the country, and concerns about families being broken up, and a kind of a weight that is hanging over them as they try to study and prepare to go to college or a career after high school. That’s a heavy burden for a teenager to carry and for a middle schooler to carry. What I hope is we are able to send a more productive signal from Washington than one that’s been sent in the past few months.

Overall, how would you assess the job Betsy DeVos has done since she was confirmed as education secretary?

I’ve been very disappointed but not surprised. I think she really is an ideologue when it comes to our public schools. When she talks about education in this country, she does not project support, really, for public education. Just the other day, the Denver Public Schools was recognized by a group in Washington for being the No. 1 choice school district in America and she went to that ceremony and took the opportunity to denigrate the work in the Denver Public Schools without having been here. So that does not instill me with a great deal of confidence.

Anything in particular, anything else, that has been disappointing?

I read the other day that she said when asked about the results that had occurred in the Michigan schools and the Detroit schools, her answer to that was that she wasn’t a numbers person, and that she was just for choice. Choice is not choice for choice’s sake. Choice is about improving outcomes for kids and you cannot do that without real accountability that ensures that there is rigor, that we are moving towards rigor, for kids that are choosing schools in the system. I wish she would come to Denver and take a look at the work that’s been done here, both in terms of choice and in terms of trying to move our traditional schools forward.

You spent months trying to craft bipartisan compromise on the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law. Then the country elected a president who has pledged to eliminate the act’s accountability standards. What advice would you give to state officials and school districts about how to comply — or not comply — with the law’s mandates?

My advice is that we should avoid is a race to the bottom here. There was a change between No Child Left Behind and ESSA, and part of that change was letting go of some of that accountability from the federal government and placing the responsibility on the states. I’m disappointed by the signals the administration is sending. My advice would be to anybody that is in the business of implementing this is to make sure their state is a state that leads all other states in terms of the rigor and expectations we have for our kids. And states can do that. There’s no magic that says the federal government has to do it. But what I would like to see is states competing with each other to provide that rigor, rather than having a race to the bottom, which I think some people worry might be the result of the changes that have been made.

On the same subject, the State Board of Education yesterday signed off on Colorado’s state education plan under ESSA, to forward to Washington. One of the board members, Republican Steve Durham, had this to say: “Unless you’re poor or a minority or from another identity politics group, there is nothing in this plan that will benefit you. There’s nothing in this plan to improve the education of your children.” What do you think about his characterization and choice of words?

Well, I haven’t read the plan so I can’t speak directly to the plan. I can speak to the process, the development plan, which as far as I can tell was very far-reaching across all of Colorado and included constituencies both in urban areas and rural areas. And I think a lot of parents and educators were involved … I will withhold judgment on the final product, but I think the process struck me as a robust process. I don’t think (what Durham said) is helpful rhetoric. I think what we should be doing is making sure all kids in this state have a chance to have a great education no matter what circumstances they are born into. We’re a long way from that being true. Language that divides us is not helpful in trying to achieve that objective.

There are a lot of things in play in Colorado this year, including some local school board elections. Earlier this spring, the Colorado Education Association, in opposing a bill in Colorado that would boost charter school funding, branded it a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill.” We are likely to see similar in school board races, including in Denver, where the incumbents all favor reforms you began and Tom Boasberg continued. What do you think of that message and tactic?

That is one of the very regrettable aspects of President Trump choosing Betsy DeVos to be the secretary of education, because if she becomes the face of reform in this country, if she becomes the face of change in this country, and that becomes an excuse for not changing and not reforming our schools or our school districts, that would be a real shame. I know what the content of the reforms are in the Denver Public Schools. I know what our starting point was and I know where we are today. And I am the first to say we have a long, long way to go. We are certainly not perfect, we certainly made mistakes, but we’ve created a lot of opportunity for a lot of people. I for one am not going to have that work thrown under the wheels of the bus of an ideologue in Washington who I think doesn’t reflect in any way the work that’s been done in Denver over now many years.

You take a bipartisan approach to your role in the Senate. What opportunities do you see — if any — to find bipartisan common ground on education issues?

Broadly speaking, even though I’ve spent a lot of my first term working with others in the other party, this is a moment where bipartisanship looks very hard to find. And the place I think with respect to education where I think we’re going to find it, and I’m optimistic about it, is higher education and the reauthorization of the higher ed bill. I’ve already had conversations with Lamar Alexander, who is the Republican chairman of the education committee. He and I worked very closely together on ESSA. And I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about access questions for higher ed: How to make higher ed more accessible, less expensive. We heard some of these questions today, not surprisingly at all, from students at Bruce Randolph. So I look forward to rolling up my sleeves with Chairman Alexander and seeing what we can do as a bipartisan way to create a higher ed bill that’s more responsive to the needs of kids that are living in the 21st century rather than in the 20th or 19th century.