Betsy DeVos has visited Florida a lot since she has become education secretary, not only because her family has a house there but also because she views the state as a national model for school choice. Her first official joint trip with President Trump was, in fact, in March to a Catholic school in Orlando.
She was back in the Sunshine State last week, visiting schools in Tallahassee, the state capital — but it’s the ones that she didn’t visit that angered the superintendent of Leon County School District.
Superintendent Rocky Hanna called her trip there “insulting” because she failed to visit a traditional public school and instead stopped at a charter school, which is publicly funded but privately operated, as well as at two private religious schools.
DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, has been a longtime supporter of school choice programs, which are alternatives to traditional public schools, and Trump shares her enthusiasm. She once called traditional public education in the United States a “dead end” and repeatedly calls it a monopoly, saying that the nation’s schools should be run like competitive businesses. Her attitude about traditional public education has alarmed public school advocates, who fear that she is attempting to undermine the system.
In Florida, DeVos visited the private preK-8 Holy Comforter Episcopal School, where, the Miami Herald reported, she toured the facilities, read Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” to kindergartners, “observed third-graders building robots in the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab and somewhat awkwardly joined a fifth-grade class in raising their hands in ‘silent cheers’ when they got the right answers during an interactive quiz on English idioms.”
Then she visited a charter high school connected to Florida State University’s college of education, the Florida State University School, where, among other things, she went to a physics lab.
She did not go to a traditional school in the Leon County School District, where some 36,000 students attend classes; that did not amuse Superintendent Hanna. The Tallahassee Democrat quoted him as saying:
“It’s obvious that the secretary and our federal government have very little respect for our traditional public school system. And it’s insulting that she’s going to visit the capital of the state of Florida, to visit a charter school, a private school and a voucher school.”
The “voucher school” to which Hanna referred is Bethel Christian Academy, which is run by Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, where the education secretary attended a roundtable with state education leaders, arranged by the church’s leader, the Rev. R.B. Holmes, a day after her visits to the FSU School and Holy Comforter.
While a visit to Bethel Christian was not on DeVoss’s public schedule, the Tallahassee newspaper confirmed that she was visiting there. The academy accepts money from scholarship “tax credit” programs that the education secretary backs, which allow individuals and companies to donate money to an organization that uses the cash for tuition and other educational expenses for qualified students at private and religious schools, and then offers tax breaks to the donors.
Interestingly, Holy Comforter does not accept money from any of the DeVos-supported “scholarship” tax credit programs that operate in Florida. Still, DeVos found the school worthy of a visit, but she did not answer questions about whether the experiences of the students at these schools are representative of most kids (which, of course, they aren’t, because the vast majority of students attend traditional public schools). The Miami Herald quoted her as saying:
“I think they’re examples of what a lot of schools should aspire to be and look for opportunities to become more innovative. I think we need to recognize the fact that far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different.”
Hanna, the Leon County schools superintendent, was invited to the roundtable but chose not to go. The Tallahassee Democrat was not permitted to cover the talks, as school administrators, ministers, politicians and others were invited, though no classroom teachers. The paper quoted him as saying:
“We were initially invited to sit and listen as a backdrop. … I’m going to pass. I’m not going to be used as some sort of token from the public school system like we’re in support of her and the president’s agenda. How are you going to go visit a private Christian school, and not visit any public school?”