How to prepare for a controversial speaker.
When President Trump nominated Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, members of the Magnet Schools of America were concerned that the administration’s interest in school vouchers would take money away from public schools, including magnets.
However, MSA Executive Director Todd Mann, CAE, saw the gap between his members and the administration as a potential opportunity, so he invited DeVos to keynote MSA’s Policy Training Conference in February.
After Congress confirmed her nomination, she accepted—only five days before the conference began. Mann immediately took these steps:
Communicate. Mann first reached out to civil rights and other education groups and told them how DeVos’ appearance at the conference would give them a chance to speak out for public schools.
Part two was communicating to his attendees. “My message to members for inviting DeVos was to say, ‘Before we write someone off for four years, let’s at least see if we can establish a line of communication and get our case made for why magnet schools are important and really make an impact for public education overall,” he says.
Get buy-In. Mann also had to keep the board apprised of the situation. “At first, they were hugely upset,” he says. “But then we started talking, and I said, ‘We have an opportunity to just pout for four years and hope for the best, or we have a chance to establish dialogue and hope we can effect some change. That’s why we have to do this.’” He got the board’s backing.
Make time for debrief. After DeVos left the stage, Mann built in 45 minutes for attendees to react to what they had just heard. “People did some venting,” he says. “It enabled them to go through the rest of the conference without feelings festering.”
The good news for Mann and MSA is that there was little fallout from the event. MSA also has follow-up meetings scheduled with DeVos to further press the case for maintaining public school funding.