While advocating for “innovative” learning in Florida’s capital city on Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s education chief drew complaints for choosing to tour two schools that are atypical of the traditional public school experience most children have.
Public education advocates — ranging from Democratic candidates for governor to the dozen protesters who picketed her visit — criticized Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for her continued promotion of private schools, charter options and voucher programs over the traditional schools that still educate most of the nation’s children.
“She doesn’t seem to have the interest of public schools in mind,” said Al Thorburn, who — with his wife, Colleen — faced the blistering Tallahassee summer heat to protest DeVos’ stop at Holy Comforter Episcopal School, a private Christian school for pre-K through eighth grade that charges annual tuition reaching up to $11,800 a year.
“The fact that she’s coming to a private school here and then an experimental school — although it’s supported by taxpayer money — she isn’t going to the city’s public schools. That seems to be a pattern,” Thorburn said.
Inside Holy Comforter, DeVos took a tour of the facilities, visiting several classrooms where every child had an Apple MacBook Air or other laptop to use in their lessons. She read Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” to an attentive kindergarten class, observed third-graders building robots in the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab and somewhat awkwardly joined a fifth-grade class in raising their hands in “silent cheers” when they got the right answers during an interactive quiz on English idioms.
Later in the afternoon, DeVos visited Florida State University Schools — a K-12 charter school known as “Florida High” that’s affiliated with FSU’s College of Education. She observed a physics lab where students learned the fundamentals behind robotics and then she tested the school’s flight simulator, before eating lunch privately with students.
DeVos praised Florida as “an innovator in approaching education and meeting the needs of students,” but she deflected questions about whether she was observing a typical student experience.
“I think they’re examples of what a lot of schools should aspire to be and look for opportunities to become more innovative,” DeVos said. “I think 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.”
Two Democratic candidates for governor who both live in Tallahassee — Gwen Graham and Andrew Gillum — blasted DeVos for not including traditional public schools in her visit.
“The vast majority of Florida’s students attend traditional public schools. Secretary DeVos should spend a full day in a Florida public school and experience the challenges they face firsthand,” said Graham, a former one-term congresswoman.
More than 2.5 million Florida children are in traditional public schools, about 270,000 kids attend charter schools that are privately managed but publicly funded, and another 370,000 kids attend private schools, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.
Gillum, Tallahassee’s mayor, called DeVos’ trip a “photo op” and “political stunt.”
“The secretary’s visit doesn’t represent the truest impression of where and how students are educated in our community,” Gillum said.
Holy Comforter and Florida High are outside the purview of the Leon County School District. Superintendent Rocky Hanna wasn’t notified of the secretary’s visit and learned of it only through media reports, his spokesman, Chris Petley, told the Herald/Times.
During her school visits — which were declared as open to the press — DeVos held the most substantive portions in private: her lunch with Florida High students and roundtable discussions at both schools with students, parents, teachers and administrators. DeVos’ spokeswoman said keeping those conversations private encourages more open conversation. The public was not privy to the feedback DeVos received.
Some students whom DeVos met with in the physics lab at Florida High complimented her for being curious about their lesson.
“It definitely seemed like she was interested in what we were doing,” senior Harrisen Lacayo said. “This robotics class is a lot different from what the standard teaching style would be, so she was talking to us about how we liked it. She seemed invested in how much we liked this class.”
Florida State University President John Thrasher — the only public official to accompany DeVos — said he was “honored to have her” at Florida High. “We have a lot to show off, particularly in our STEM areas. Obviously, she’s very interested in these kinds of programs, and we’re very proud of these programs,” he said.
In her brief availability with reporters, DeVos stayed on message in promoting education alternatives. She again praised Florida as an “innovator” when asked about a recent controversial state law that shifts taxpayer money to privately run charter schools at the expense of traditional schools, and she pivoted when asked what her solution would be for chronically underfunded public schools.
“I think for one thing, parents should continue to be more and more empowered to make the right choice for their child, for their children, to send them to a school or schools that are right for them, and Florida has made great steps in that direction,” she said.
DeVos argued that media reports are “simply not correct” in stating the Trump administration wants Congress to cut public education by $9 billion and bolster funding for privately managed charter schools and voucher programs that help low-income kids afford private schools — two school choice alternatives DeVos has personally advocated for many years.
As Education Secretary, DeVos is in charge of implementing federal policy for public education across the country. But the billionaire Republican donor and businesswoman quickly became a polarizing figure when Trump nominated her for the job, because she had no experience with public schools.
DeVos was narrowly confirmed by the Senate in February in a 51-50 vote, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie — the first time that’s been done in a Senate confirmation vote.
Since then, DeVos has toured at least two dozen schools around the country — including at least five trips to Florida — with a mix of private, charter and traditional schools, colleges and universities and a consistent emphasis on new teaching methods that offer students and parents choice, her spokeswoman said.