VAN WERT, Ohio — Barely a hint of the biting rhetoric that has dogged U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from teachers unions and other public school advocates surfaced today as she toured Van Wert City Schools alongside an ardent critic.
President Trump’s cabinet pick, controversial among many public school educators for her charter school advocacy, spent several amicable hours in this rural northwest Ohio district with Randi Weingarten, leader of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers.
The two disagree on funding priorities, school choice, and other major educational policy issues, but found common ground in praising Van Wert.
"It's been a very inspiring and wonderful day," Ms. DeVos said, during a 20-minute news conference after hours of touring schools and classrooms. "It is clear that this community has invested heart and soul into the students here and the students that you serve."
Ms. Weingarten previously has been outspoken in blasting the secretary about her amount of experience, the administration’s proposed federal education budget, and her advocacy for charter schools and school choice. But today, the union official focused on the importance of public education in places such as rural northwest Ohio.
“You learn how to do this work by doing this work,” she said. "Van Wert proves that support for public schools transcends politics and probably that is one of the most important lessons. The more we can make the education of our children all of our responsibility regardless of whether we're Democratic or Republican, the more we will help the future of America."
The two started their day at Van Wert Early Childhood Center, which serves 325 preschool and kindergarten students —including those with special needs.
After speaking to preschool and kindergarten teachers and parents, the two dropped into a brightly decorated preschool classroom. Both high-profile guests quickly knelt down and chatted with the youngsters about their coloring projects and dinosaurs.
Outside the middle school, about eight protesters gathered before the day's events began.
Van Wert County Democratic Party chairman Dan Miller said the group didn't want to disrupt the activities but did want to voice their disapproval with Ms. DeVos' ideas for education.
"We wanted Betsy DeVos to know that even deep in these red states there's opposition to her," he said.
School choice programs, charter schools, and vouchers don't help students in places such as Van Wert, he said, because other school options are very limited and those programs divert money from traditional public schools.
"Those kinds of policies are bad for these rural school districts," he said.
But Ms. DeVos defended school choice at the news conference, saying it can make sense in rural areas. She said some small districts can expand their academic offerings by using virtual learning to provide instruction in subjects they wouldn’t otherwise have.
"The reality is that parents and students only make choices if there are choices available to begin with and secondly they only make them if that's the right choice for them. And so, I think, the fear of a negative impact on a school that is meeting the needs of its students is very low actually.”
The 2,200-student school system is located in conservative Van Wert County, which borders Indiana and is about 95 miles southwest of Toledo.
Ms. Weingarten fought Ms. DeVos’ confirmation and blasted the administration’s 2018 federal budget proposal, which includes a $9 billion cut to the education department.
The spending plan would invest heavily in school choice programs, calling for an additional $1.4 billion for charter schools, private school choice, and to encourage districts to adopt open-enrollment practices.
The joint appearance came about after Jeff Hood, a Van Wert health and physical education teacher and president of the 127-member Van Wert Federation of Teachers, asked Ms. Weingarten for help in extending an invitation to the education secretary to visit his district. He made the request after Ms. DeVos’ divisive but successful confirmation in early February.
Both of the high-profile education leaders accepted the offer.
Ms. DeVos, a Michigan native, is a graduate of Calvin College, a Christian school in Grand Rapids, Mich., served as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, and spent years advocating for school choice and charter schools.
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