Will Betsy DeVos have a better understanding of public schools after visiting one? Or is she measuring it as a potential charter school?
DeVos, Weingarten lay down arms for first-ever joint school visit
DeVos, Weingarten lay down arms for first-ever joint school visit By Caitlin Emma
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and American Federation of Teachers Presidents Randi Weingarten — longtime combatants in the nation’s school wars — will converge Thursday on a small Ohio school district deep in Trump country where amid forced pleasantries, they’ll seek to score political points.
It’s a schoolyard stare-down of sortsfor the two veterans, who are making a first-ever joint visit to several public schools in Van Wert, a rural community in northwest Ohio that went overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump.
Weingarten extended the invitation to DeVos in February with little expectation the secretary would accept after the teachers unions’ concerted efforts to sink her nomination. DeVos called her bluff, perhaps because she is under pressure to show her commitment to public schools and appearing in a midwestern Republican stronghold plays to her strengths.
The condition was that Weingarten must visit a still unidentified school of “choice” with DeVos. That visit hasn’t been scheduled yet.
“These women are mortal political enemies, bent on destroying the other’s education agenda through deployment of vast financial resources,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.
“But it’s necessary for Weingarten to find favor with the Education Department,” he said. “And it can only help DeVos if she’s seen as the secretary for all schools and not just charters and private schools.”
In fact, the joint tour allows both women to press points that are critically important to them, said several policy watchers. DeVos can show rural Republicans and Democrats that she supports all schools, not just charter and private schools. Weingarten — who once stood next to a protester costumed as a grizzly bear to mock DeVos remarks about the need for guns in schools — can show she is extending an olive branch to the secretary even as she champions public education.
Thomas Toch, an education policy expert at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and founder of the think tank FutureEd, suggested that few people in the public education sector “are still listening to DeVos and one might argue this is an attempt to address that problem.”
“Until now, she has been reluctant to say anything other than, ‘I’m for good public schools, good charter schools, good private schools.’ She repeats that frame over and over and hasn’t been willing to go beyond that. … She’s going to have to go much farther than she has to date in terms of embracing public education.”
From Weingarten’s perspective, if DeVos makes a strong commitment to public education standing next to the union leader, she might be able to say she helped DeVos soften her stance, Toch said.
Weingarten said in an interview that she hopes the trip will give DeVos a chance to learn what is working in public schools, and not just a photo opportunity. She said she also wants her to understand how Trump’s budget blueprint, which would slash the Education Department’s $68 billion budget by 13.5 percent, would hurt public schools.
“This is an area that voted for Trump, but they love their public schools and they’re really upset about the cuts to education and this polarization about public schooling,” Weingarten said. “They’re wary about [DeVos’] policies and they should be wary about her policies. They’re an attempt to dismantle, defund and destabilize public schools.”
A spokesman for the Education Department declined POLITICO’s request for an interview with DeVos. But in a written statement shared with The Blade in Toledo, DeVos said that “every parent should be able to send their children to a school that meets their unique needs, and for many parents, that is a public school. I support and celebrate all great schools.”
Kaleigh Lemaster, executive director for School Choice Ohio, a statewide choice advocacy group, said she hoped the focus of the trip would be on children, rather than a particular education option.
“We’re happy to see Secretary DeVos and Randi Weingarten visiting great public schools, charter schools and private schools because we believe that every family should be able to choose the best educational environment for their children,” Lemaster said. “This is a great opportunity for them to talk about Ohio’s schools and hopefully find agreement on what should be at the center of all discussions on education policy — the children.”
Van Wert Superintendent Ken Amstutz said he’s eager to have his school district “pull these two people together,” although he noted the Education Department has largely been in the driver’s seat when it comes to planning the visit.
DeVos and Weingarten are expected to spend the day visiting Van Wert’s high school, elementary school and early childhood center, where they’ll hear from administrators, teachers and students. They’ll hear about programs that provide students with social services and food on the weekends when they otherwise might go hungry. And they’re expected to visit with fifth graders and a high school robotics class.
Amstutz said his district has struggled financially, but he’s eager to show how teachers and students are doing innovative things with limited resources — for instance, offering a high school robotics club, which won a regional contest earlier this year.
“A lot of good things are happening in public education. I think the blinders are on and I’d just like to have her open her eyes and take a look at what’s going on,” he said of DeVos. “Maybe Van Wert will be the starting point of where this conversation takes place between Betsy DeVos and proponents of public education.”
As for the people of Van Wert, Republican Party Chairman Thad Lichtensteiger, a farmer, said he believes his neighbors will give DeVos “a fair shake.”
“Van Wert is a really conservative place,” he said. “We’re going to weigh the issues on their own merits, rather than say Trump is evil and paint anybody associated with him with that broad brush.”
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