EAST HARTFORD, CT — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman stood with members of the East Hartford community Tuesday to question whether U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had done her homework and invited her to visit the school she painted with such a broad brush last week.
Speaking in support of President Donald Trump’s budget in front of a House subcommittee, DeVos spoke last week of meeting a young man, “Michael,” who described East Hartford schools as “nothing more than adult day care … dangerous day care.”
According to DeVos, Michael grew up in a low-income neighborhood and was constantly bullied to the point where he was even afraid to go to the school’s bathroom. She said even though he was failing his teachers “passed him along from year to year, giving him D’s and sending the not-so-subtle message that they didn’t think Michael would amount to much.”
State and school officials said they know who “Michael” is, but they would like to avoid identifying him.
Malloy said what he finds fascinating about that story is it ends with Michael going to community college and getting A’s.
“So there had to be a foundation laid in a place like East Hartford,” Malloy said.
But Malloy said Tuesday’s press conference inside the lobby of the high school wasn’t about Michael.
“I think what this is really about is a secretary being totally unprepared to speak about a system, if she thought that was an important story,” Malloy said.
He said if she really wanted to use the story of Michael, then she should have had someone on her staff call the school and find out about the graduation rate and the make-up of the student body.
“The idea that we would hear a story, that undoubtedly had some validity for that individual, that we then would cast a system based on that one story,” Malloy said. “Quite frankly, it doesn’t speak well for someone who is saying, ‘I want to be a leader of public education in America’.”
Malloy said East Hartford’s graduation rate is “substantially above the national average.” At 88.6 percent, East Hartford High School had the largest increase in its graduation rate last year, surpassing every other high school in the state.
“We should be very proud of what we’ve accomplished together,” Malloy said.
He said they are proposing $9.2 billion in federal education cuts at a time the secretary is talking about failing schools systems. Malloy said that money is important to making sure children in Connecticut’s schools succeed.
Before her nomination to Education Secretary, DeVos backed school vouchers and other school choice initiatives through an advocacy organization.
“I don’t mind choice. Choice is a wonderful thing, but you don’t force choice by undermining our public school system,” Malloy said.
U.S. Rep. John B. Larson said the comments DeVos made were “personal.”
Larson, who graduated from the high school 50 years ago and grew up in a federal housing project, said the school is “steeped in tradition and pride and community values that make us the community that we love so much.”
One thing Larson said he can say to DeVos with certainty after hearing her remarks: “You don’t know East Hartford.”
He said he thinks it’s only fitting that when you stereotype a community that “you have a responsibility to come out and meet these students.”
U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Liz Hill said the secretary’s focus is on individual students and ensuring they have access to high quality education.
“For anyone to assert that Michael’s individual story should be generalized to the broader student population is a symptom of the one-size-fits all status quo that too many continue to seek to defend,” Hill said. “Michael is an individual student with an individual story to tell. He was able to rise above what he considered challenging circumstances and go on to excel academically. We should be applauding students like him.”
There was no comment about whether DeVos would visit the school.
Larson said the federal government can’t afford to cut public education by $9.2 billion at the same time it’s diverting more than $1 billion to private school voucher schemes and other school choice programs.
East Hartford is an Alliance District, which means it is one of the 30 lowest-performing school districts in the state and has received more state funding over the past few years to improve.
The press conference in the lobby of East Hartford High School followed a 6:30 a.m. rally sponsored by the Connecticut Education Association. More than 200 teachers and students rallied on the front lawn of the school.
“Mrs. DeVos has pointed out that she has no idea about the learning happening in our classrooms in East Hartford and across the country,” East Hartford Education Association President Annie Irvine said.