Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the head of a national teachers union sought to find common ground as they toured public schools in Ohio, but differences remained.
The school visit came just months after American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten fiercely opposed the nomination of DeVos, a longtime advocate of charter and private schools. In the past Weingarten has accused DeVos of feeling “antipathy for public schools.”
During the visit to schools in Van Wert, a town in northwestern Ohio, Weingarten said the two women have earned a reputation of “combatants” but that finding common ground is crucial for the sake of students.
“Van Wert proves that support for public schools transcends politics,” Weingarten said as she thanked DeVos for visiting the school.
While DeVos complemented the teachers and students, she said some 20 percent of local families have elected to send their children to other schools.
“It’s an opportunity that we should continue to offer because the goal is for every child to be in an education environment that’s best for them,” DeVos said. Choices should not be “dictated, mandated,” she added.
Moreover, she said, a good public school should not feel threatened.
“I think the fear of a negative impact on a school that is meeting the needs of its students is very low,” DeVos said.
Weingarten questioned making investments into school choice options, such as charter and private school programs, at the expense of traditional public schools. The Trump administration has proposed slashing key afterschool programs mostly targeted at low-income families, saying they haven’t proven to be effective.
“There is no secret that we are fighting some of the budget cut,” Weingarten said, adding that eliminating such programs would harm the Van Wert community and others.
“But I think today’s visit was much more about proactive, positive, what happens when schools work together, when they engage in strategies that work for kids,” Weingarten added.
DeVos, a wealthy Republic operative and donor, has spent more than two decades advocating for charter and voucher programs in her home state of Michigan and elsewhere and she has made school choice a priority.
Next year’s budget proposal calls for slashing funding for the Education Department by $9.2 billion. The administration is proposing to allocate an additional $1.4 billion for school choice programs and to eliminate two programs worth $3.6 billion that provide funding for teacher preparation and after-school programs, saying they have now shown to bring results.