At the end of her visit to four Nebraska schools Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said it is in the hands of states and local communities to come up with innovative ways to offer school choice to parents.

“I’m an advocate for parents and children to be able to choose the right setting for them. It’s really up to the states and communities to decide what that looks like,” DeVos said in answer to a high school journalist’s question about whether she would push for charter schools in the state.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt and Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel both stressed that Nebraska already offers school choice and did not want to see state or federal funding diverted from public schools.

"Nebraska is a choice state. Students can attend any school they want to — and do," said Joel, adding that state funds go where the kids go. "That fosters competition."

DeVos deflected questions about school funding, but both Joel and Blomstedt said they were encouraged that she seemed to indicate her administration would not push charters or other privatization efforts in Nebraska.

“I don’t believe necessarily we need something coming from the federal level to tell us how to design the system, and I don’t think that’s what Secretary DeVos messaged to us," Blomstedt said. "I think actually it was, ‘It is your system’ and that she’s not here to tell us it ought to be charter or voucher or anything.”

Protesters and other public school advocates weren't convinced.

An estimated 200 people gathered across the street from the Lincoln Children's Zoo to protest her visit, and a pro-public schools group and the Nebraska State Education Association held a rally Thursday afternoon to make the case against charter schools.

“I hope she left with an appreciation for the quality education that can go on in all public schools that do not have to deal with the distractions and funding drains of charter schools and voucher schemes,” said Jenni Benson, president of the state teachers union.

The pro-school choice group Educate Nebraska weighed in, too, saying it looked forward to expanding the examples of school choice DeVos saw Wednesday and Thursday through public, public charter and private schools — so all students have the same opportunity.

For Thursday's DeVos visit, many students at the LPS zoo school wore T-shirts made by two seniors who offered them to any student who wanted to wear them as a respectful way to express their views.

“We’re here to show we like public schools and we want to make sure (zoo school) stays a public school,” said freshman Lexie Massing.

Many of the students' T-shirts were decorated with artwork, quotes and other sayings, including those promoting acceptance of all gender and sexual identities.

Kierstan Brutus, who was in the senior research class DeVos visited, said students at the zoo school are proud to be at a place where “people are allowed to be who they are.”

DeVos visited four schools Wednesday and Thursday: Midland University’s Omaha campus, the privately funded Nelson Mandela Elementary School in Omaha, St. Mary’s Catholic School in Lincoln and the LPS science focus program at the Children’s Zoo. 

At the zoo school, she talked with a student who let her pet a lizard while he explained the work he did with them.

She asked students what they liked about the zoo school, what they’d change is they could and how long they’d been there.

Students shared their research projects, and said they liked the smaller environment — about 100 students attend the 20-year-old program — because teachers know them and understand how they learn. They liked being able to pursue their passions, they said, including several students who changed their focus once they delved into their studies. They also liked being able to create portfolios to showcase what they’ve learned, rather than taking final exams.

Senior Nico Lozano said he liked the opportunity to do real research.

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“It’s interesting,” he said. “It’s frickin’ research. We’re doing science, not just learning about science.”

DeVos met with students over lunch and spoke with them during a roundtable discussion that was closed to the media.

Senior Ava Gagner attended the roundtable and said the discussion was similar to an exchange in the classroom. DeVos asked students to talk about their school and why they liked it, but didn’t take questions.

Gagner said she wished they’d had a chance to ask DeVos about her positions on education policy — including her intention to rescind Obama-era guidance on sexual assault enforcement on college campuses and her views on school privatization. Gagner also would have asked why she chose to come to Nebraska.

“I wish I could know how open-minded she is about things,” Gagner said.

DeVos began her day at St. Mary’s, across from the state capitol, where she read Dr. Seuss’ “The Places You’ll Go” to a kindergarten class, then visited a seventh-grade math class that started with a scripture lesson and turned to strategies to do well on the ACT.

Her visit, part of a tour of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Indiana, is billed as an avenue to "Rethink School."

"We are going to continue to encourage and really push states, not in a top-down, heavy-handed way but in an encouraging way, highlighting the things we've seen and experienced and learned on this trip," DeVos said.

Zoo school senior Annika Novotny said it was nice to be able to show off their school.

“I think our school did a really great job showing her how great a public school can be,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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