U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made a secret visit to Indianapolis last week.
DeVos’ public calendar for Feb. 5 said she had “no public events.” There were no press releases marking her trip to Indiana. Even the local school district did not know the U.S. Secretary of Education was coming.
But unbeknownst to most of the city, DeVos was visiting Cold Spring School, a public elementary school with an environmental science focus. As one of the first campuses in Indianapolis to voluntarily become an innovation school, Cold Spring is overseen by the district but has most of the flexibilities of charter schools. A staunch advocate of school choice, DeVos has highlighted innovation schools in the past, saying the schools are an “out-of-the-box” approach.
The Indianapolis Public Schools administration, however, was not involved with DeVos’ visit.
“The board and administration were not aware of the visit until after it had occurred,” said Mary Ann Sullivan, a member of the Indianapolis Public Schools board. “No one at the district or the board knew she was coming.”
The unannounced visit is part of a larger pattern for DeVos, who has been criticized for keeping many public appearances off her calendar. Critics say keeping plans private diminishes public trust and accountability.
When Chalkbeat learned about DeVos’ visit to Cold Spring on Friday, we reached out to the school and to DeVos’ spokesperson to confirm the details and find out why she was here. Neither responded for more than 72 hours.
On Monday, DeVos’ spokesperson Liz Hill emailed an explanation for the visit.
“She was there filming for an upcoming TV special on innovation in education and her one-year anniversary in office,” Hill wrote. “It was closed press and not noticed to the public for that reason.”
Cold Spring School chief operating officer Carrie Bruns provided a similar statement to Chalkbeat on Monday that confirmed the details of the visit. “Cold Spring School was very honored to have been chosen for this visit,” Bruns added.
Indianapolis Public Schools, a district of about 31,000 students, has garnered national attention for creating innovation schools, which aim to release traditional schools from the tether of central office control. The schools are particularly controversial because their teachers are no longer employed by the district and they cannot join the district union.
Not everyone in Indianapolis welcomes DeVos’ praise. The innovation school strategy is contentious, but it has bipartisan support from Republican lawmakers in the Statehouse, and Democratic elected officials and advocates from Indianapolis.
Sullivan, who previously served as a Democratic representative in the Indiana House, said DeVos is part of an administration that supports policies that will “deeply hurt” children. Sullivan said she is reserving judgment on what to make of the visit to Cold Spring until she learns more, but she is concerned that the TV story that DeVos was filming could potentially spark backlash.
“My biggest fear is — I don’t want the school or the strategy to be criticized because she’s choosing to uplift it,” Sullivan added.
Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.