U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos touted a federal proposal to expand “education freedom,” or school choice, during a private talk Wednesday in Colorado Springs.

“It’s the biggest, boldest plan yet for students,” DeVos told a crowd of 400 at an invitation-only 20th anniversary celebration of Parents Challenge.

The Colorado Springs nonprofit provides scholarships similar to education vouchers to low-income children toward costs of attending a school of their choice, regardless of where they live.

Among those at the luncheon held at James Irwin Charter High School in Harrison School District 2 were Parent’s Challenge founders Steve and Joyce Schuck, lawmakers, school officials and parents whose children have received scholarships from the nonprofit.

VIDEO: Dozens show up to protest Betsy DeVos appearance in Colorado Springs

The proposed Education Freedom Scholarship federal tax credit would “fuel states to develop more opportunities for students,” DeVos said.

The plan would net Colorado an extra $60 million to fund scholarships for preschool, tutoring, career and technical education, dual enrollment in high school and college courses, transportation for programs and other costs, she said.

“We believe this will be a game-changer,” DeVos said.

As envisioned, the program would not use tax dollars or decrease funding for public schools, she said. The $5 billion program would be paid for by voluntary donations from individuals and businesses.

“As with freedom in any other setting, with education freedom comes more choices, and with more choices comes more quality,” DeVos said.

The idea has been introduced into both chambers of Congress, she said.

As DeVos touted the benefits of school choice and assistance for poor children who usually do not have the means to attend a school outside the boundaries in which they live, about 60 members of teachers unions from across the state demonstrated near the school.

Protesters wore red symbolizing education and hoisted signs that read “Fund Public Education,” “Deplorable DeVos,” “Keep Calm and Vote for Education.”

Parents Challenge seeks to take school choice voucher model nationwide

“She needs to go,” said Colorado Springs School District 11 special education teacher Stephanie Marotto.

“The fact of her wanting to cut education funding, that alone, is just not OK. Our students have a right to public education.”

DeVos has proposed cutting the 2020 federal education budget by $7.1 billion from this year’s budget. She has drawn criticism for including special education in those proposed decreases.

Morgan Chavez, a parent who ran for a school board seat in Colorado Springs D-11, held a sign with an extended middle finger.

“I don’t like her stance on charter schools,” Chavez said. “Education is a right no matter your ZIP code, and school choice takes that away. It makes rich kids get a good education and poor kids get a bad education.”

School-choice supporters say that’s exactly what they’re fighting for: equal rights for poorer students to go to a school of their choosing, perhaps outside where they live.

Gwen Samuel, a parent of a student in a traditional school in Connecticut, attended the luncheon to hear DeVos, but on her way inside stopped to decry the protesters.

“I was curious to see teachers protesting in front of a school,” she said. “How do they think kids feel seeing that? They think, ‘Did my mom or dad do something wrong?’

“No, parents are doing what they think is best for our children. If a school doesn’t work for a child, should a parent be forced to send their child to a school they don’t want?”

Steve Shapiro, a tutor for Parents Challenge, said the fierce opposition on the part of educators doesn’t make sense.

“We’re so pro-choice on everything else, including abortion and marijuana, but when it comes to education, it’s oooh, hands-off of choice.”

The political nature of the event dismayed some attendees.

“It’s all politics, but when it comes to our children, we’ve got to do the best for them,” said Nasombi Dixon, a single mother from Colorado Springs.

Her children, who are students at traditional public schools, have received Parents Challenge scholarships to attend a summer college-prep program at a private school, enroll in a science enrichment course, obtain private counseling and other assistance.

“These are opportunities my children wouldn’t have experienced,” Dixon said. “These are things public schools don’t always cover. I’m able to empower my children with opportunities that will lead to lifelong skills.”

Teachers say they won’t back down from opposing DeVos and her views on education.

“I’m here because I support public education and excellence education, and I feel like we need a leader who knows what that looks like,” said Amanda Kerrigan, a teacher at Manitou Springs High School who was protesting outside.

“We want the money to go to a free public education that supports democracy,” she said.

“We feel democracy is being broken here.”

Parents Challenge founder Steve Schuck, who has worked with DeVos to promote school choice for decades, told event attendees that “naysayers don’t hold a candle” to DeVos’ supporters.

“Betsy is bright, thoughtful, generous, compassionate, and she has concern for those less fortunate,” he said. “She’s the epitome of a servant leader.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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