President Donald Trump toured a Catholic school in Florida on March 3, issuing praise for it as ideal for “disadvantaged children.” He dropped in on a classroom of fourth-graders at St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando. Trump was accompanied by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an advocate of charter schools, described St. Andrew as “one of the many parochial schools dedicated to educating some of our nation’s most disadvantaged children.”
“Education is the civil rights issue of our time,” said Trump. In addition to dignataries, on hand was Denisha Merriweather, who used Florida’s school voucher program to attend a private high school. “We want millions more to have the same chance to achieve the great success that you’re achieving,” Trump said. He also told school principal Latrina Peters-Gipson that “the love you have for what you do is really fantastic.” He added, “We want millions more to have the same chance to achieve the great success that you’re achieving.” Many of the students at St. Andrew’s School use Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarships program to pay for tuition.
The president was joined by his daughter, Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. The latter two are both Republicans who support school choice.
Trump and DeVos have praised the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which offers tax incentives for individuals and corporations to donate money to organizations that provide scholarships for private and religious school tuition and other educational expenses. Critics say they are privatizing public education, while offering no accountability and violate the constitutional tenet of separation of church and state.
In visiting St. Andrew’s, Trump became the first sitting president to visit a Catholic school since Ronald Reagan visited St. Agatha Catholic School in Detroit in 1984. Trump wants to spend some $20 billion to help the states produce options for education. In his address to a joint session of Congress last week, he called on Congress to pass legislation that “funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children.”
In contrast, last month DeVos visited a public school after taking office as education secretary. At Jefferson Academy in Washington DC, she was blocked by protesters from entering the school. One protester was later charged with assault.
Criticism from public school advocates of the visit to St. Andrew came quickly. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten released a statement saying, “To borrow a word from President Trump, it’s so ‘sad’ that the president and his secretary of education have demonstrated such an antipathy toward public schools. He has taken a page right out of the extremist playbook by criticizing, undermining and proposing the defunding of public schools and instead trumpeting private alternatives.”