U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos found supporters and skeptics during a half-day trip to urban and rural Indiana schools Friday for the final day of her national back to school tour.
DeVos sought to draw attention to innovative curriculum and teaching methods at stops at charter school classrooms in Gary and Indianapolis before attended a high school football game here in rural Hancock County east of Indianapolis.
Standing outside the Eastern Hancock High School football stadium, DeVos praised the traditional school of 400 students that attracts students from outside the district yet repeated a message she shared during the previous three days of the tour: a lot of the country’s schools look very similar in approach and in appearance to education offerings 100 years ago.
“Yet we’re in the 21st century and a lot has changed,” she says. “And so we really want to challenge our communities local school districts and states to re-examine what they’re doing and how they’re meeting students needs.”
DeVos offered little comment or hints at future policy changes during her time in Indiana on the “Rethink Schools” tour, saying her reason for the stops was to listen and return to Washington, D.C with ideas.
Before the highly anticipated football game between Eastern Hancock and rivals Knightstown, DeVos greeted students and teachers at the school’s annual FFA hog roast. She and her husband Dick, a Michigan businessman, ate pork-pulled sandwiches in the school cafeteria with local parents Natalie Schilling, a former teacher, and husband Eric.
The Schillings sought a seat with the secretary to press upon her strength of public education at Eastern Hancock County Community Schools and the importance vocational training has in the community.
The couple has concerns about unknown financial implications for a rural district like theirs if the federal government somehow assists in the expansion of school choice options across the country – such as taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools or charter schools. DeVos and President Donald Trump have said they favor incentivizing states to offer more choices.
Eric Shilling said he and DeVos agreed that offering students a personalized education is vital. But, he says, a balance is needed for parents with the means to seek out choice and for families — like many in Hancock County — who must rely on the-the public option.
“We had a really good dialogue,” Shilling says. “How those things need to connect and what’s what role technology has in that to make it possible and fair for all individuals regardless of income to be able to make those choices for the young people.”
Earlier Friday, DeVos stopped at Hope Academy on the far northeast side of Indianapolis – a charter high school for students recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.
Students offered intensely personal stories to DeVos during a roundtable discussion about their drug use, failed attempts to get sober and finding success and comfort at the school.
The message they shared alongside parents and staff was united: more schools like Hope Academy are needed. But state-funding alone is not enough to educate and provide recovery therapy to these students, some who began abusing drug before becoming a teen.
The cost for a student is about $23,000. More than half of the funding comes from the state through per student funding a special budget line item. Most of the rest is covered from private sources.
During the roundtable, Republican Rep. Robert Behning, Indiana House Education chairman, told DeVos states like Indiana providing as much funding as they can to schools like Hope Academy.
“But the feds have a responsibility under the (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)” to do more, he says.
U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, a Republican, responded that if increasing IDEA funding is important, other parts of the federal budget need cut.
DeVos has attracted protesters during visits around the country since her appointment earlier this year. In Indiana, few opposed to her made their voices heard.
Outside Hope Academy in Indianapolis, Lawrence Township parent Krisztina Inskeep and a friend sat with balloons and a sign that read “stand up for Trans students.”
DeVos has attracted criticism for her comments in May when she refused to say whether the Education Department would withhold funds from private schools that discriminate against students.
“We want Secretary DeVos to stand up against discrimination,” Inskeep says. “She equivocates on that point quite frequently.”
DeVos began her day in Indiana by visiting two charter schools in Gary both operated by Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation: Gary Middle College and 21st Century Charter School.
The 21st Century Charter recently gained national attention when a student graduated from the school with a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree from a regional Purdue University campus.
During the tour, DeVos visited schools in Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana.