President Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary paid a whirlwind visit to Miami on Thursday, making her first stop at a public university since taking office.
Betsy DeVos started the day at CARE Elementary, a Christian school in Overtown, before visiting Florida International University, where she toured a nursing simulation lab and took questions from students and faculty. Then, her carefully choreographed visit took a very Miami detour — a meeting with the rapper Pitbull at a charter school he supports in Little Havana.
Standing on stage alongside Armando Christian Pérez, also known as Pitbull, DeVos was greeted warmly as she addressed a gym full of students at SLAM, a charter middle and high school backed by the rapper.
“I know that many of you are blazing the trails in your family and showing what can be done if you’re just given the opportunity,” DeVos said. “I want to encourage you, encourage you in your studies, encourage you to continue to pursue the passion that is inside of you, whatever that may be.”
Then DeVos met with students and school leaders to talk about the charter network. After the meeting, she lauded Miami for the city’s embrace of school choice options, including charter schools.
I think Miami-Dade in particular has done a tremendous job of recognizing that students are individuals and individuals have different needs.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at a visit to SLAM charter school
“I think Miami-Dade in particular has done a tremendous job of recognizing that students are individuals and individuals have different needs,” DeVos said. “I think leadership here is really being intentional about working together to try to address these needs and these desires in new and different and innovative ways.”
The reception at FIU was less welcoming.
At a question and answer session, the first students to speak brought up the rising cost of higher education. Although DeVos acknowledged their concerns, she asked students to speak to more “positive experiences” at FIU.
Idaykis Rodriguez, a post doctoral student, pointedly led her comments with, “I’m an immigrant first,” and talked about the importance of public universities for low-income and first generation college students. “FIU serves as a beacon of hope for a lot of our students to achieve that American dream,” Rodriguez said.
She wanted to know what direction DeVos plans to take the education department.
“We have a keen interest in getting kids to go into STEM, or STEAM,” DeVos said, referring to science and technology programs.
DeVos’ nomination generated national controversy earlier this year because of her lack of experience in public education and years of support for charter schools and vouchers. The billionaire Republican donor has bankrolled lobbying efforts to expand charter schools in her home state of Michigan and critics fear she will cut funding for traditional public schools.
FIU faculty used every opportunity to bring up the impact of federal funding on their campus, from the state-of-the-art simulation lab DeVos toured to the nation’s first foreign physician retraining program. Tarkiu Menberu, an Ethiopian doctor, is training to become a nurse through the FIU program.
Menberu asked DeVos about her department’s stance on the Obama-era legislation protecting undocumented immigrant children brought to the U.S. by their parents — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Menberu teaches at Miami Dade College’s Homestead campus and said undocumented students are deeply worried.
“We have an obligation to care for the students that are in the schools and in the system,” DeVos said. “I know that there’s a lot of conversation about students that are understandably concerned about what their future might be, but I would refer to Secretary [John F.] Kelly’s comments the other day that says, ‘We are very sensitive to these students and we are not seeking to go and find them in schools.’ I share his heart for the students and for the families as well.”
DeVos offered no specifics on her future budget plans, but said the federal government will “continue to fund the things that are working for students and discontinuing the things that are not.”
Although she complimented Florida’s voucher-like tax credit scholarship, which provides businesses with dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for donations that fund private school scholarships for low-income families, DeVos said she wouldn’t push to expand it nationwide. “We don’t need to have a federal program,” she said. “We need to empower states to do what they do best.”
Roughly 20 students protested outside the meeting. One even chased DeVos down and videotaped her ignoring his shouted questions about her brother’s relationship with the Trump campaign and Russia. Her brother, Erik Prince, founded Blackwater, a security firm, and the Washington Post recently reported that he attended a back-channel meeting brokered by the United Arab Emirates with a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin.
The FIU student protestors waved signs and chanted, “We know what’s up. We’re no fools. DeVos will destroy our schools” after the Secretary of Education left campus.
On Friday, the education secretary mocked by late-night TV for her lackluster knowledge of public education will visit Royal Palm Elementary, a public school in Westwood Lakes. Then she will stop at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus in downtown.