Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson met with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Wednesday, sparking concerns among union leadership and others of a plan to privatize public schools.
"We will not stand for Betsy DeVos's and Dennis Richardson's support of school voucher programs that have failed students in other states," said Oregon Education Association President Hanna Vaandering in a statement. "When public dollars are diverted away from public schools and into private for-profit schools, it hurts our most vulnerable students. Instead of meeting with DeVos, Secretary Richardson should be listening to Oregon students, parents, and educators about building the schools our students deserve."
But Richardson defended his meeting in the nation's capital as simply working with elected leadership.
"Although many Oregonians wish otherwise, Donald Trump is the President," Richardson said in a news release Thursday. "It is in Oregon's best interest to develop good relationships with his Cabinet."
He added: "DeVos made it clear that President Trump's education policies will transfer greater power to individual states to define how best to ensure every student gets a quality education."
Richardson was in Washington, D.C., as part of the National Lieutenant Governor Association's meet-and-greets with various new administrative leaders, including Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and White House Assistant Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Doug Hoelscher. Oregon does not have a lieutenant governor, but the secretary of state is second in line of succession to the governor.
Deb Royal, Richardson's chief of staff, said the meeting with DeVos was mostly introductory and that the "big takeaway" is that "each state would be deciding what's best for their students." Royal added that De Vos said the Trump administration supports the Every Student Succeeds Act — the nationwide law passed in 2015 governing federal education policy.
As a representative in the state Legislature, Richardson supported voucher systems which caused some to worry that he will support efforts to privatize the state's public education system.
"It is anybody's guess what Dennis Richardson thinks his education role is as Secretary of State, but resurrecting his failed plans for spending public tax dollars on private schools is bad for Oregon students and public education," Vaandering wrote.
Royal said the secretary recognizes that in his new nonpartisan role, he is not involved in education policy.
"He's not involved in any of that," she said. "He's not in a policymaking position."
Also this week, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) criticized DeVos for failing to spell out how she will uphold key provisions of the ESSA.
Wyden specifically worries about new graduation accountability provisions and triggers for supports for schools that do not graduate two-thirds of their students, that he says House Republicans are working to undermine. Oregon has one of the lowest four-year graduation rates in the country at 74.8 percent.
"In light of legislative attempts to strike down Obama Administration regulations implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act and reports of harmful federally funded private school voucher programs from the Administration, clarity about graduation rate policy is more important than ever," Wyden wrote in the Monday, March 13 letter, demanding a response within 30 days.
The next day, Wyden also announced he had joined a group of Democratic senators who called out the U.S. Department of Education for delaying implementation of a rule that would require for-profit, not-for-profit and public school systems to offer courses that prepare students for "gainful employment in a recognized occupation."
"The Gainful Employment rule is a critical protection for both students and taxpayers," the senators wrote, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).