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Baltimore students protest planned Betsy DeVos speech


    Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is interviewed in her office at the Education Department in Washington.

BALTIMORE >> Some University of Baltimore students are speaking out against their scheduled fall commencement speaker: Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

On Monday, a crowd of students filed into a courtyard near the school, holding protest signs that read “support public schools #neverDeVos” and “We are DeVos-stated.”

Senior Benita Vargas-Brown, 27, said DeVos, a champion of charter schools at the elementary and secondary school level, has no place on a public university’s campus.

“I grew up in the Baltimore public school system,” Vargas-Brown said. “I do social work and I work with kids who come into the school system who need behavior plans and additional assistance in order to be successful, and so often the resources aren’t there. Betsy DeVos just continues to pull resources out of that environment and give them to private schools.”

DeVos was announced as commencement speaker late last week. On Monday, University of Baltimore President and former Democratic mayor of Baltimore Kurt Schmoke sent a letter to the student body explaining why he believes she is the right choice.

“I anticipated the reaction both pro and con to my decision to invite her,” Schmoke wrote in the letter. “It is the type of reaction that one would expect to have in a vibrant university community.”

One week before the speech was announced, Schmoke’s first cousin Julian Schmoke Jr., a former for-profit college official, was appointed to lead an Education Department unit designed to identify and combat fraud inside colleges and universities. Schmoke Jr. is a former associate dean at DeVry University, a for-profit college that recently agreed to pay $100 million after it was sued by the Federal Trade Commission over allegations of misleading ads. Despite criticism, the department defended its choice, saying that Schmoke operated exclusively in an academic capacity at DeVry, and was not involved in recruitment or administrative activities.

Kurt Schmoke told The Associated Press that DeVos’s commencement speech and his cousin’s recent appointment are unrelated, adding that the speech had been on the books since February and he only learned that his cousin had applied for the position in July.

“It’s clearly a coincidence,” he said.

Schmoke said he made the announcement months after securing DeVos as the fall commencement speaker because the university is now beginning to handle the logistics of the event. He reached out first in January and again in February, “because in my experience I know it takes a long time to get on public officials’ schedules.” DeVos accepted his invitation shortly after it was extended, Schmoke said.

Messages left for the Department of Education were not immediately returned.

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