President Trump on Friday hailed a Florida school tuition assistance program as the future of education, joining Betsy DeVos, his education secretary, at a Catholic elementary classroom to kick off an intense political battle on behalf of school choice in America.
The president and Ms. DeVos, who for years championed school vouchers as an antidote to failing schools and falling test scores, met with parents, teachers and students at St. Andrew Catholic School, which has embraced a Florida program that uses public money to allow low-income students to attend private schools.
Hundreds of low-income students, many of them African-Americans, attend the private religious school thanks to tuition assistance from the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program. Critics say it diverts money that would otherwise go to the state’s public school system.
Tuition at the school, just outside Orlando, is normally $6,260 per year, according to the school’s website. The Florida scholarship program allows businesses in the state to receive tax credits for donating to nonprofit scholarship organizations that give tuition assistance for students to attend schools like St. Andrew. The families’ portion of the tuition bill varies.
The program’s goals, according to the website, are to “expand education opportunities for children from families that have limited financial resources; and to enable children to achieve a greater level of excellence in their education.”
Such programs are at the heart of the promised changes that Ms. DeVos and Mr. Trump have said they will bring to federal education policy.
But they are seen by teachers unions and many Democrats as destructive to the health of public education systems, offering a false promise of choice while undermining the financial stability of public schools.
Democrats assailed Ms. DeVos for her support of vouchers during her contentious Senate confirmation hearing. But Friday’s visit to the religious school is a clear indication that she has no intention of backing down from her longstanding advocacy of the idea.
She also has the clear backing of the president, who said during his address to Congress this week that he would seek to “enrich the mind, and the souls” of children across the country.
“I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children,” Mr. Trump said in the speech. “These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”
At the school on Friday, Mr. Trump stopped in on a fourth-grade classroom where the teacher, Jane Jones, was giving a lesson about the state of Florida. The vocabulary list on the wall included definitions for “Government. US Constitution. Limit. President. Governor. Naturalization.”
“Who are we?” Latrina Peters-Gipson, the school’s principal, asked after Mr. Trump entered the room.
“We are scholars,” the students responded.
“What are our goals? Where are we going?” Ms. Peters-Gipson asked.
“College and heaven,” they said in unison.
The president posed for pictures with two of the young children, telling them, “Come on, kids. We’re going to make you famous.” As he left the classroom, he complimented two of the African-American girls.
“Oh, that hair is beautiful. I love that hair, right?” the president said.
St. Andrew school teaches children from kindergarten to eighth grade. It enrolls 291 students through Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, out of a total school enrollment of 340. In an opinion article in the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday, Ms. Peters-Gipson said the school offered “a rigorous blend of academics and faith.”
“The parents who come through our doors don’t tend to see public and private as somehow in conflict,” she said. “They’re just looking for the school that will best serve their children.”
At a round-table discussion with Mr. Trump after his visit to the classroom, Ms. Peters-Gipson and others praised the success of the scholarship program. Henry Fortier, the superintendent of Catholic schools, said that graduates of the Florida scholarship program statewide scored higher than other public school students on the SAT and had high graduation rates.
“I know that there’s a lot of controversy about school choice,” Mr. Fortier told the president. But he added: “I see it as a partnership. It’s not a situation of us versus them.”
But teachers’ groups argue that the Florida efforts to provide choice harm the state’s public schools by reducing taxpayer support for schools that are struggling, leaving the students who remain in them worse off.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the president and the education secretary were demonstrating an “antipathy” toward public schools. “It’s sad that rather than 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,” she said.
Despite the fierce opposition from teachers and Democrats, Mr. Trump has said he will ask Congress to pass a school choice law that will clear the way for more programs like the one in Florida.
During the round-table discussion at the school, Mr. Trump quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as saying that he hoped inferior education would become a thing of the past. The president said that working toward a national school choice policy would help make that a reality.
“Betsy’s going to lead the charge, right?” Mr. Trump said, turning to his education secretary.
“You bet,” she said.
Source: The New York Times