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Why the Trump/DeVos visit to a Catholic school is so unusual — and what it really means

President Trump and Education Secretary Besty DeVos visited St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando on Friday to promote school vouchers. (Video: Reuters)
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President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made their first official joint trip to a school on Friday. It was a highly unusual trip for a president, but one that clearly signals his educational priorities.

Trump and DeVos visited St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, where nearly 300 students attend with help from the controversial Florida Tax Credit Scholarships program. They were joined by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, as well as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, both Republicans who support school choice.

Both Trump and DeVos have praised the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which offers tax incentives for individuals and corporations to donate money to organizations that provide “scholarships” for private and religious school tuition and other educational expenses. Supporters say such programs help students from low-income families attend private schools, while critics say they are privatizing public education, offer the public no accountability and violate the constitutional tenet of separation of church and state.

Incidentally, Trump and DeVos, both billionaires, own homes in Florida.

The Associated Press reported that Trump first visited a fourth-grade classroom at St. Andrew, and shook hands with students who told him they were learning about Florida’s history. The AP said that he told one girl who said she wanted to open her own business that she’s “gonna make a lot of money,” but he warned her “don’t run for politics.”

A report from the pool of journalists permitted to accompany the president said that when the visitors were ushered into a “chilly” classroom, “teacher Jane Jones instructed some in the class of roughly 25 students to remove their sweaters.” It also said:

The pupils waited patiently for the arrival of the president in identical red polo shirts. Ms. Jones kept their attention from diverting by discussing the presidency. “One day this could be for you,” she said to the class, referring to the security and press awaiting the president.
“What are our goals? Where are we going?” Ms. Jones asked.
“College and heaven,” the class replied in unison.
“We’re on our way,” she said.

Trump is the first sitting president to visit a Catholic school since Ronald Reagan visited St. Agatha Catholic School in the Archdiocese of Detroit on Oct. 10, 1984, years after he was elected. According to a story in a local newspaper called Observer & Eccentric, Reagan was invited by a student named Carol Tumidanski, who sent him a letter and then presented him with a school jacket when he arrived.

Barack Obama visited a Catholic school, St. Columbanus on Chicago’s South Side, in late 2008, when he and his wife Michelle Obama were in a nearby parking lot to distribute food to needy families, and kids began to wave to them from the school windows. The Obamas stopped in for an unscheduled visit, and the then-president-elect urged the students to do their math and respect their teachers and parents.

Once a minor part of the education debate in the United States, “choice” has become a central focus of school reformers, and DeVos has been a leader of the movement for decades. She once called public education “a dead end” and recently said she would not be upset if the U.S. Education Department were closed.

The visit to St. Andrew was a clear signal that the Trump administration intends to push forward with expanding school choice as a key priority. Trump has said that he wants to spend some $20 billion to incentivize states to grow choice options. During his address Tuesday night to Congress, Trump urged lawmakers to pass an education bill that “funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children.” He also invited as a guest to the speech a student who had attended a Florida private school with help from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships program.

DeVos last month made her first solo trip as education secretary to a D.C. public school, Jefferson Academy, where she was initially blocked by protesters from entering via a side door and later drew the wrath of teachers when she characterized them as essentially standing around “waiting to be told what they have to do.” She didn’t say anything like that at the two charter schools in the District she visited this week:

One of those schools, Perry Street Prep, had its high school closed in 2014 because of poor performance.

Criticism from public school advocates of the Trump/DeVos visit to St. Andrew was swift. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement:

“To borrow a word from President Trump, it’s so ‘sad’ that the president and his secretary of education have demonstrated such an antipathy toward public schools. He has taken a page right out of the extremist playbook by criticizing, undermining and proposing the defunding of public schools and instead trumpeting private alternatives.
“The evidence overwhelmingly shows that vouchers don’t help kids. And as Betsy DeVos learned when she spent $5 million to push a private voucher ballot measure in Michigan, voters overwhelmingly oppose these efforts. So it’s sad that rather then listening to the public they are sworn to represent and who have a deep connection to public schools, Trump and DeVos’ first official joint trip is to a religious school, which they use as a backdrop for their ideological crusade. Instead of lifting up a great public school in Orlando—such as the Evans Community School, which focuses on the well-being of children by offering health and dental care, a food bank, free meals, and after-school programs and education programs for families—Trump is in Florida to push school choice and a backdoor voucher proposal as a way to turn education into a commodity.”