There Betsy DeVos goes again — literally.
On Wednesday, the education secretary visited an all-girls charter school in Washington, along with first lady Melania Trump and Queen Rania of Jordan. In a statement afterward, DeVos emphasized her support for school choice by saying that Excel Academy “is a shining example of a school meeting the needs of its students, parents and community” and shows “the transformation that can happen when parents are empowered to choose the education setting that best fits their child’s individual needs.”
DeVos then headed to Florida, where over two days she will visit a handful of Miami-area schools that run something of a gamut of different educational offerings. They include a private Christian school; a traditional public elementary school; two institutions of higher education; and a charter school started by the popular rapper Pitbull, criticized by some for profanity-laced and misogynistic lyrics.
DeVos, a conservative Christian, appeared Thursday with Pitbull, whose real name is Armando Christian Pérez, at the charter school he started in Miami, underscoring her commitment to making school-choice expansion her top priority.
This is DeVos’s third time as education secretary visiting schools in Florida, which she has frequently said is a national model for school choice. She has been a longtime ally of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, supporting his national education reform agenda of increasing charter schools and voucher/voucher-like programs that use public money for private and religious school tuition. She also has strong family ties to Florida, where her husband, Amway heir Dick DeVos, owns a home along with other DeVos family members. What’s more, her father-in-law bought the Orlando Magic basketball team in 1991, and the family owns it still.
On Thursday, DeVos visited CARE Elementary School, formally known as the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence, in the Overtown section of downtown Miami. CARE is part of 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.
DeVos on Thursday also visited Florida International University’s Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing and Health Sciences, and the SLAM Charter School. SLAM is an acronym for sports leadership and management, and enrolls students from grades six to 12.
On Friday, she will visit Royal Palm Elementary, a traditional public school with a mostly Hispanic student population, and then go to the Wolfson campus of Miami Dade College, which started as a two-year community college but now offers four-year degrees.
Pitbull has opened several charter schools, the first in his home town of Miami. SLAM is part of a group of schools opened by Mater Academy, a nonprofit that has opened a network of charter schools in Florida. SLAM and the other charters in the network are managed by a for-profit company, Academica, which the Miami Herald said in 2016 was one of the largest for-profit charter school management company in the state, with deep ties to state legislators. Academica founder and executive Fernando Zulueta is the brother-in-law of former state legislator Erik Fresen, who recently ended eight years as chair of the state House education budget subcommittee.
According to the Herald:
For the past several years, Florida charter schools have received a proportionally larger share of state capital funding, despite having fewer students, leaving traditional public schools with fewer resources to repair aging facilities. Florida has given more than $760 million to charter schools since 2000, of which as much as $70 million in capital funding went to schools that later closed, according to an Associated Press analysis.
It also said that Fresen was a big supporter in the legislature of education initiatives such as online virtual charter schools — of which Academica has applied to create at least 19. Fresen was the target of at least one ethics complaint when he was a legislator because of his ties to the charter school industry, the Herald reported.
Meanwhile, Academica was involved with another state legislator. According to an October 2016 Sun-Sentinel story:
State Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, has worked hard to loosen rules for charter schools in his capacity as chairman of the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee.
In his capacity as Chief Operating Officer of Doral College, Diaz has benefited personally to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars as charter schools owned by the for-profit company Academica pay his private, unaccredited college — also Academica-affiliated — for college courses that are not transferrable to any other school.
When the school was opened in 2013 with Pitbull as the celebrity founder, some people in the Miami area were unhappy. Pitbull has a history of abusing alcohol and drugs, and some of his song lyrics are laced with profanity and misogyny. His hit, “Timber,” for example, says: “I have ’em like Miley Cyrus, clothes off/twerking in their bras and thongs … face down, booty up.”
In a 2013 story, NPR quoted Raquel Regalado of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ school board as saying:
“[I] don’t know if it’s going to provide something useful at the end of the day. I guess you can expect Pitbull to show up every now and then, and that’s cool if you’re a Pitbull fan … how does that translate into academic achievement? That’s the difficult part of this that parents don’t understand. … I think it’s a marketing ploy, honestly.”
In the latest round of grades that the state of Florida assigns to each school based on test scores and other criteria, SLAM received a C.
In 2016, John Oliver on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” took a jab at Pitbull’s connection to charter schools:
Charters are basically public schools that are taxpayer funded but privately run. And now the first ones emerged 25 years ago as places to experiment with new educational approaches, and since then they’ve exploded. There are now over 6,700 charter schools educating almost 3 million students, and some have celebrity backers, like Puff Daddy, Andre Agassi and even Pitbull, who helped launch Miami’s SLAM Academy. He was a keynote speaker at a charter school conference in 2013 and his speech has not aged well for reasons that will become painfully clear:
Pitbull: They told me that Bill Cosby has spoken here before, which I think is amazing, someone that I really relate to. I also love Jell-O, you know.
Oliver: Yes, yes, that does look bad now, but to be fair it was not commonly known at the time that Jello was responsible for dozens of cases of sexual assault. Turns out Jell-O is a monster. I think I’m legally okay to say that. … And, look, when Pitbull has a charter school, it seems like it might be worth taking a look at them.