Florida Politics

DeVos had a public agenda for Florida schools meetings ... and a private one

A day after visiting a private religious school and a public charter school in Tallahassee, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent Wednesday speaking behind closed doors with various education stakeholders, business leaders and advocates in Florida’s capital city.

The events were not disclosed on DeVos’ public schedule, as her office deemed them “private” activities.

However, on Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Department of Education released a “readout” promoting one of the gatherings after the fact — a “summit” at Bethel Family Life Center with “K-12 and HBCU [historically black college and university] leaders.”

DeVos’ office said it lasted more than three hours and included potentially several dozen guests, such as state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

It was organized by the Rev. R.B. Holmes, a Tallahassee pastor who — like DeVos — supports school choice alternatives, such as charter schools and voucher programs that subsidize private school education for low-income families.

Although Stewart was listed by DeVos’ office as an “attendee,” Stewart’s spokeswoman, Meghan Collins, told the Herald/Times that “must have been a mistake.” She said Stewart was “out of town” at a meeting of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System and is meeting in Gainesville on Wednesday and Thursday.

More than 40 others were listed by DeVos’ office as having been invited — including several other officials with the state DOE; state Sen. Bill Montford and U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, both Democrats from Tallahassee; school superintendents in north Florida; several religious leaders, and current and past administrators at Florida A&M University, among others.

RELATED: “Praising Florida’s ‘innovation,’ DeVos avoids traditional public schools”

DeVos’ spokeswoman, Liz Hill, could not say who or how many individuals actually attended. She referred a Herald/Times reporter to Holmes’ office, which did not return a request for comment.

Preparations for the gathering began nearly a month ago but it was hurriedly finalized this week, according to two stakeholders invited.

Montford, a former schools superintendent who now runs the statewide superintendents association, said he was invited by Holmes and helped make calls on Tuesday to extend last-minute invites to superintendents in the region. Montford said about six made it to the meeting, as did Lawson.

The readout described two roundtable sessions for which the topics involved “sustaining and strengthening” both “public education and schools of choice” and “HBCUs and higher education.”

Montford said the discussion on pre-K-12 education emphasized teacher recruitment and retention as Florida faces a shortage of educators, and “the need for equity among all public schools, particularly between charter schools and traditional public schools.”

“In other words, if we’re really going to have equity, then we need to dig deeper and make sure there is equity in terms of access to programs and students being able to continue in these programs,” Montford said, referencing complaints at some charter programs of students being forced out if they don’t meet certain standards.

In reference to the HBCUs, Montford said stakeholders emphasized the challenges those institutions have and how the federal government plays a role in helping them.

Earlier this year, DeVos notably praised historically black colleges and universities — established during the time of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws — as “pioneers” in school choice. The statement drew intense criticism and caused some graduates of Bethune-Cookman University to boo her and turn their backs when she delivered a commencement speech there in May.

At Wednesday’s meeting, “the secretary spent the vast majority of the time taking notes and receiving input from the participants there,” Montford said. “She didn’t make any policy statements or anything in terms of what the future would be like. I would describe it as two hours of her taking input and taking notes.”

Montford added: “I’m hopeful that she is sincere in her willingness to take input and, at least, give it serious consideration. Whether she agrees with it or not is another matter, but I have to believe she is at least sincere.”

Hill, DeVos’ spokeswoman, defended the lack of transparency in disclosing the summit, saying “it was a closed press meeting to facilitate open and honest dialogue among the participants.”

In a statement, DeVos said: “As we confront the many challenges facing our education system today, it is paramount that we hear from those on the front lines: local leaders who confront these issues head on each and every day.”

“Today’s discussions were great examples of how local leaders — whether they are administrators, educators, elected officials or religious leaders — can come together to share best practices and work together to find innovative solutions that help our students and communities succeed,” she said.

Meanwhile, DeVos’ office also did not disclose — nor offer a readout of — a meeting reportedly held earlier Wednesday with about a dozen leaders of business, higher education and advocacy organizations at the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The News Service of Florida reported that DeVos had a “warm reception” there and urged the leaders to “double down” on efforts to expand choices for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“I think we have a lot more creativity that can enter the K-12 system,” DeVos told the group. “I don’t like to refer to it as a system. It needs to be a system of options, a wide range of options, of approaches to education that we haven’t even really thought of yet because it has been, for the most part, such a closed industry. And I use that term very intentionally. It is a large industry.”

She also urged a rethinking of the federal government’s role in the education system.

“I think that there’s been an outsized footprint in the last couple, three decades on the part of the federal government in education,” she said. “And it’s my goal to extract us from a lot of those spaces. I will welcome your thoughts on what we need to be doing less of. And if there are areas to be doing more of, what are those areas?”

DeVos remains a controversial figure in Florida and across the country, because she came to President Donald Trump’s administration with no experience in public education and was confirmed by the Senate in an historic 51-50 decision — for which Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote.

On Tuesday, DeVos held private roundtables also at the two schools she toured in Tallahassee: Holy Comforter Episcopal School and Florida State University Schools, a K-12 charter school affiliated with FSU and known as “Florida High.”

She took heat from some public education advocates for not including a visit to a traditional public school during her Tallahassee trip. Her emphasis on private, religious schools and charter alternatives — a hallmark of her education platform and her years advocating for school choice — also incensed Florida critics.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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