Lesson learned. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos taught a group of high school journalists a valuable tutorial about holding power to account. She didn’t intend to inspire the young reporters by illustrating the unaccountability emblematic of the Trump administration.

No, in a recent trip to Lexington, Ky., Devos came to pitch her latest attempt to undermine the public education system before a friendly crowd of supporters and like-minded-pols. Instead, she gave local high schoolers — writers and editors on their school newspaper — a story they never expected and deeper insight into what it means to doggedly pursue truth.

So, thank you, Betsy. You, inadvertently, gave seasoned, cynical journalists like me reason to cheer. I hope the students affected by your largely unchallenged visit to town are galvanized to keep questioning power and insisting on transparency. Their resilience in the face of fact-finding obstacles shows they’re on their way.

The teen journalists from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School tried unsuccessfully to cover a high profile event at a community college featuring DeVos and Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin. The two had teamed up for a roundtable meeting to promote DeVos’ school privatization agenda that always directly or indirectly reduces funding for public schools while increasing money (read vouchers) for private ones.

DeVos visited Lexington not to invite robust discussion about tax policies that redirect public dollars to private schools. The trip was to tout her signature scheme to create a nationwide system for publicly funding private schools. The benevolent-sounding “Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act” is more of the same, an ambitious federal expansion of school vouchers to attend private and religious schools.

DeVos proposes a federal dollar-for-dollar tax credit for wealthy donors who fund private school scholarships — essentially reimbursing them in full for their donations. It’s a lucrative incentive, when coupled with state tuition tax credits, to support private education at the expense of public education.

There is plenty to debate about vouchers disguised as tax credits. About profiting from charitable contributions to nonprofit organizations that serve private schools. About the lack of state oversight on those nonprofits tasked with distributing checks to families attending private schools. About distorting the tax code into a tool for subsidizing private and religious schools with public dollars.

But DeVos doesn’t want debate on something she insists “won’t take a single cent from local public school teachers or public school students.” Not true. The loss of federal and state revenue under expanded voucher tax shelters means less money available to public schools that serve increasing numbers of students in poverty, with disabilities, and English-language learners.

Maybe that’s why the public was given little advance notice of the education secretary’s school choice roadshow in Kentucky. Maybe that’s why attendance to the “open press” event at a public community college was by invitation-only. Unknowing Dunbar students, who arrived to gather information and query DeVos for their high school paper, were turned away. Not on the invitation list. College officials said they were simply adhering to “instructions from Secretary DeVos’ team” about who could be admitted.

A DeVos spokeswoman quickly claimed that no one from the secretary’s staff was aware of the situation, that, of course, the students were welcome, and that for sure the matter was being investigated for possible miscommunication between other staff on site. Official bunk to deflect blame.

The high schoolers were incredulous. Shut out as student stakeholders in a roundtable discussion on education anchored by the country’s education chief? Wow. What a story. They dug for more details.

Were there other stakeholders who were similarly denied a seat at the table because their public school perspective on funding private schools might have put DeVos on the defense? Why was DeVos’ appearance before a sympathetic audience of school choice advocates orchestrated to give her a free pass on controversial policy?

The affair was scheduled at 11 a.m. in the middle of the week when most educators and students couldn’t attend — invitation or no. The local school superintendent wasn’t invited, and none of the 173 school districts in the state was represented at the forum on the future of education.

Input on a federal proposal, that would affect thousands of teachers, students and parents dependent on a quality public education system, was limited to proponents of privatization. That was the story. Being excluded from the conversation — not news coverage of the DeVos publicity campaign — was what the students deplored in an editorial in their newspaper. “We were not the only ones who were disappointed and frustrated,” they wrote.

But the young journalists used their frustration to find their voice and to take power to task for paying lip service to their needs. Lesson learned. Well done.

 

Johanek is a veteran print and broadcast journalist.