As Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pulled up to the squat, cinder-block school in Northern Virginia on Tuesday, she passed a small group of protesters — and counterprotesters — huddled beneath umbrellas in the rain, bearing signs that said, “Good Morning Mrs. DeVos” and “Vouchers only help the rich.”
Inside Ashland Elementary, the reception was far more cheerful. About two dozen students lined the hallway, waving tiny flags and belting out an energetic school cheer:” B-E Y-O-U! Believe in yourself and be the best you!”
The visit to the campus in the Prince William County public school system was her fourth to a school in the D.C. area. Except for the protesters outside, the event went on without the kind of drama that accompanied past trips.
DeVos, whose steadfast support of charter schools, private school vouchers and other alternatives to traditional public schools has made her controversial, arrived at Ashland Elementary to learn about the school’s programs to help military families, since nearly half the students come from such families. The visit coincided with the Month of the Military Child.
Nearly 2 million children come from military families in the United States, and just a small fraction of those — about 8 percent — attend schools on military bases, according to the Military Child Education Coalition. The remainder attend other public schools, many of which may not be well-equipped to deal with the challenges of being in a military family, including the frequent and sometimes unexpected moves and having a parent deployed far from home. Ashland Elementary has a range of programs, including student groups and parent socials, to help recently resettled military families become acclimated to the community.
Educators and school leaders also hoped the visit would drive home the importance of investment in traditional public schools.
“Of course, I’m a huge proponent of public education, and I think that it’s great that she took this amount of time to actually go and visit classes and go and visit children and their families about what’s going on at Ashland Elementary,” said county schools Superintendent Steven L. Walts, who joined the secretary for a portion of the tour. “She struck me as someone who was sincerely listening to what people were saying … This was an opportunity to showcase ‘This is a public school, and it’s great.’ ”
DeVos said it was “a real privilege to be here at Ashland Elementary this morning and a real joy to have an opportunity to meet and talk with some of the families that are being particularly supported by the Ashland community … and to hear about the way this community has cared for these children who are so often transitioning from school to school and locale to locale.”
At the school, DeVos was greeted by the student council president, who told her that she had attended a mix of public and private schools, but “in my opinion, Ashland Elementary is the best school.” In another classroom, DeVos crouched down on the carpet in a classroom where groups of students were reading to one another, and she chatted with girls about the book they were reading.
“I love Amelia Bedelia!” she exclaimed, referring to the comical title character in the popular children’s book series. She read a short picture book to the children about a mother in the military. In a first grade classroom, she took in a lesson on Ben Franklin, donning a pair of glasses made of colorful pipe cleaners that children made when they learned about bifocals, one of Franklin’s inventions.
In the school’s library, she sat with a group of students from military families, learning about the challenges they faced as they moved from place to place and how Ashland Elementary has helped them. She listened quietly for the most part and asked no questions, allowing Principal Andy Jacks to facilitate the discussion.
One father also argued that school choice is critical for military families who may have little choice in where they live and may not be able to afford private schools if the local traditional public school proves to be a poor fit.
“This school is a complete blessing,” said Air Force Sr. Master Sgt. Sam Look, who has a child at Ashland Elementary. “Unfortunately many bases across the country are in not-as-good areas with not-as-good school systems, and so one of the concerns is, from an perspective with the lower-income families, we don’t always get put in situations where we have this. And when we don’t have choices, when you can’t afford to put your kids in better schools or live in better areas, that becomes problematic.”
Lt. Col. Rojan Robotham of the Air Force brought her concerns about the expense of child care for working military families, where one or both parents may be working odd hours. When she shared on an online Air Force forum that she would meet with DeVos, many chimed in and asked her to deliver the White House a message about the need to make child care more affordable.
“It’s very challenging to find quality before- and aftercare,” Robotham said, who said in an interview later that her child-care costs have skyrocketed since she has moved off a military base, where child care is far more affordable. “I’m hoping if not yourself, then Ivanka Trump, somebody can take that on.”
“It’s good to hear that,” DeVos said, turning to her. “I’ve heard that at a lot of stops.”
DeVos said the Education Department will be working to find more ways to ease the transition for military families in public schools, who face many challenges as they move from place to place and cope with deployments and the stresses of military life.
“If there’s one common theme that I’ve heard from military families that I’ve talked with in the last several weeks it’s that … the most important thing is assuring that their children have a great place to go to school in a learning environment that meet their needs,” DeVos said.