TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a supporter of voucher programs and charter schools, visited two Tallahassee schools -- one a private religious school, the other a charter -- for what she called a “learning” experience on Tuesday.
Democrats called the visit, which didn't include traditional public schools, a “photo op” and “publicity stunt.”
After a tour of Holy Comforter Episcopal School, DeVos highlighted innovations she saw at the school while defending the educational approach of President Donald Trump.
“I think they're examples of what a lot of schools should aspire to be and look for, opportunities to become more innovative,” DeVos told reporters. “I think that 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. And we need to be acknowledging that and moving toward ways that really engage students and take their curiosity and really fire it up and stoke the curiosity to continue to learn.”
Tuition at the school is $10,000 per year -- about $2,500 more than the state funds per student in public schools. Among the innovations shown were a computer in the hands of every student. It would cost Florida about a quarter of a billion dollars to provide every public school student with a computer.
DeVos also toured Florida State University Schools, a charter school affiliated with the university's College of Education.
Her visit comes as more school districts around the state are suing over a recent education law, claiming that the legislation giving charter schools additional access to tax money without elected school boards' consent violates the state constitution.
On Monday, Duval County joined 10 other districts in suing the state. Five other districts are still discussing joining the suit, while only two districts have voted no on getting involved.
"That’s an issue that local school board members believe is their authority to decide," said Andrea Messina of the Florida School Boards Association.
DeVos said she didn't know how the schools were selected, but innovative programs, which include concentrations in science, technology, engineering and math, were probably a factor.
Peter Klekamp, the head of Holy Comforter, said he had been contacted by DeVos' office about the trip.
“If we can offer what we do to someone at this level, we're proud to do it,” Klekamp said.
DeVos read a Dr. Seuss book to kindergartners and held a closed-door meeting with a small group of parents and school leaders at Holy Comforter.
She was greeted by about a dozen protesters outside the private school. Most were supporters of public schools, but not all.
"The government monopoly on schools is a dismal failure," pro-charter advocate Greg Marr said.
Most of the protesters think she is robbing the future of public schools.
“We need to have good schools for everybody, and public schools is that opportunity," Susan Gage said.
“Seeing that she's coming to a school that is so specialized for people who are financially able to come to a private school, and not a wider representation of our community at a public school, is definitely not a good representation,” said Colleen Towey, an elementary education major at Florida State University who was among those protesting DeVos' visit.
DeVos, a wealthy Republican donor from Michigan, has long advocated for alternatives to traditional public schools.
DeVos was narrowly confirmed in the Senate, 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence, in his role as presiding officer of the Senate, casting the first tie-breaking vote ever on a Cabinet nominee.
Her selection was backed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime friend who is a leading advocate of vouchers. The American Federation of Teachers opposed the nomination, calling DeVos “the most ideological anti-public education nominee.”
Her trip came as President Trump's administration has offered a proposed education budget 13 percent lower than in the current year -- a $9.2 billion reduction -- while setting aside $1 billion that could be spread to states and school districts that establish school-choice programs.
Echoing Trump, DeVos said parents should have more opportunities to select their children's schools while shrinking the role of the federal government.
“We should be focused on what students need as individuals, not on systems, not on buildings, not continue to focus sort of on the infrastructure,” DeVos said. “Let's focus on what individual students need and require to be able to learn and become everything that they can be.”
Prior to her appearance in Tallahassee, the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, criticized DeVos because of her support for private school vouchers.
“It's no surprise that Betsy DeVos will be visiting a private school among her stops in Tallahassee,” Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall said in a prepared statement. “She has long shown her opposition to public schools, her support for unfettered vouchers and for-profit charter school chains and her desire to privatize all education in this nation.”
DeVos' critics, including Democratic gubernatorial candidates Gwen Graham and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, contend her priorities drain resources from public education.
In January, the Florida Supreme Court rejected an appeal challenging the constitutionality of the state's voucher-like “tax credit scholarship” program. The decision let stand a lower-court ruling that found the Florida Education Association and others who challenged the program didn't have legal standing to bring the suit.
DeVos called Florida's approach to education a “role model” for the nation.
“I think Florida has continued to be an innovator in approaching education and meeting the needs of students,” DeVos said.
The program allows corporations to claim tax credits for donations to organizations that then cover private-school tuition for mostly low-income students.
The number of students benefiting from the tax-credit scholarships has grown from 24,871 in the 2008-09 school year to an anticipated 101,869 during the 2017-18 school year, according to Step Up for Students, an organization that covers most of the students.
The growth follows repeated moves by the Legislature to expand eligibility and enrollment in the program.