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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tours Air Force Academy to tout innovation, but keeps remarks limited

September 13, 2017 Updated: September 14, 2017 at 12:36 pm
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photo - Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, looks around the Cadet Chapel as she visited the U.S. Air Force Academy on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).
Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, looks around the Cadet Chapel as she visited the U.S. Air Force Academy on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

The U.S. secretary of education toured the Air Force Academy campus, chatted with cadets over lunch and even hopped into the cockpit of a T-53 aircraft training simulator during a visit to the school on Wednesday. But if Betsy DeVos shared any ideas about her vision for America's education system, it wasn't apparent.

The academy was a stop on DeVos' "Rethink School" tour, a showcase of different education models in the West and Midwest, from private schools to public institutions. High-ranking academy officials touted the school's mission as they walked with her across campus, highlighting the athletic center, airfield, and other student spaces, such as the CyberWorx innovation center.

DeVos did not deliver any prepared remarks. Her public relations team allowed her about two minutes to speak to The Gazette and other members of the press toward the end of her visit.

"I think this institution is a very fine example of approaching education in an innovative fashion, not being satisfied with doing things the way they've always been done," she said. "It's been a fascinating few hours, and I just feel very privileged to have this opportunity to be here and to meet all of the fine leadership and the great cadets."

Devos, known for her firm belief that parents shouldn't be limited to sending their children to schools within their ZIP codes, has come under fire by critics for her support of school voucher programs that they say give wealthy students an unfair advantage. In Colorado, the state's highest court has twice ruled vouncher programs unconstitutional, according to education publication Chalkbeat Colorado.

Her trip, which kicked off Tuesday in Casper, Wyo., also includes stops in Nebraska, Missouri and Indiana. Before coming to the Springs, Devos and her staff were in Denver to visit Firefly Autism center, where she spoke about the importance of minimizing learning barriers for those with disabilities, Chalkbeat reported.

Devos has made several visits to Colorado since her position was confirmed with a Senate hearing. Educators gathered in July to protest her Denver appearance at the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative public policy organization.

Earlier this year, DeVos publicly criticized Denver for "limited" school choice options, Chalkbeat reported. When The Gazette asked her if her recent stops in Colorado had changed her impressions, she said she is pleased with the community's push "to offer parents better options for their children's education."

Nate Bailey, communications director of the U.S. Department of Education, said the academy was included in the tour not only because of its prestigious status, but because the school offers a unique perspective as both a military installation and an institution of higher education.

"We appreciate her taking the time to engage with cadets and staff and learn about the unique educational experience offered by USAFA," Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the school's new superintendent, said in a statement. "I'm a bit biased, but you can't help but be impressed by these amazing young men and women who will lead tomorrow's Air Force."

DeVos arrived at the school's Cadet Chapel at about 11 a.m., greeted by Silveria and chaplain Col. Paul Sutter.

In the Mitchell Hall dining facility, she met with eight cadet scholars over bread bowls filled with chicken and dumplings. After lunch, DeVos paused while leaving the dining hall so cadets could snap pictures with her on their smartphones.

"She's such an important person in our society," said cadet Teddy Drewes, a freshman, after shaking DeVos' hand. "I never thought I'd get to meet the secretary of education."

Brig. Gen. Andrew Armacost, the school's dean, escorted her into Fairchild Hall, where many students have classes and labs.

"We try to put them at the center of all these different intersections where we think great creativity emerges," Armacost told her, describing a curriculum that blends liberal arts and science, engineering, technology and math.

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The Denver Post contributed to the reporting of this article. Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108

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