Van Wert, Ohio
Long-time adversaries U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten spent more than four hours touring this rural Ohio district together Thursday. Both were still alive and well by the end of the day.
And so were the deep divisions in this corner of the country over K-12 education and President Donald Trump.
Even as DeVos and Weingarten counted model dinosaurs with preschool students, watched high school students demonstrate their robotics know-how, and chatted with teachers about social-emotional supports, small groups of protestors from both sides of the political divide gathered outside. One demonstration featured American flags and pro-Trump signs, another assailed DeVos and her pro-school choice views.
Inside the schools, staffers who work together every day had very different takes on how DeVos and Trump are handling public education—and on the direction of the country in general.
And in the press conference that capped off the day, Weingarten said she can’t support the $9 billion in education budget cuts that Trump and DeVos are proposing to after-school programs, teacher training, and more.
“You’re seeing what the [financial] investment is doing” in Van Wert, Weingarten said of the district, which receives Title I and other federal money. “It’s not a secret that we are fighting the budget cuts.”
DeVos, who has spent decades advocating for private school vouchers and charter schools, thinks that school choice can work, even in rural communities like Van Wert. She noted that about 20 percent of the district’s students take advantage of Ohio’s high school choice program to enroll in neighboring districts.
“The goal is for every child to be in the education environment that’s best for them,” she said.
And DeVos said she heard from teachers that “paperwork and regulations,” from both the state and federal level, sometimes stand in the way of doing what’s best for students.
“This community has a very different personality than New York City has, than Chicago [has]” she said. “The notion that we have to try to continue to force-fit and have a top-down approach on almost anything, it really bares a lot of examination.”
For their part, Weingarten and DeVos seemed to agree on at least one thing: Van Wert’s students and teachers are great.
“Van Wert proves that support for public schools transcends politics,” said Weingarten
“It’s been a very inspiring and wonderful day. It is clear that this community has invested heart and soul into the students here,” DeVos said.
Weingarten said in advance of the visit that she picked Van Wert because it’s a good model for what the rest of the country should be doing when it comes to K-12. The 2,200-student district focuses on community schools, early-childhood education, and project-based learning. And teachers are brought to the table whenever district leadership makes any significant changes to the curriculum.
The joint appearance had been months in the making. Weingarten, along with an army of Democratic activists, put up a tooth-and-nail fight against DeVos’ confirmation. But later, she invited the secretary to join her on a visit to a traditional public school. DeVos accepted on the condition that Weingarten tour a “school of choice” with her. That hasn’t been scheduled yet.
DeVos and Weingarten didn’t just drop by a school, do a quick tour, and hold a press conference. The day included a tour of an early-childhood center and a visit to a high school science class that’s using project-based learning to master engineering and robotics. They also stopped by a 5th grade class as students sat in groups and talked about the Great Depression.
There were multiple round-table discussions, including one on early-childhood education. Parents told DeVos the program helped their kids get socially and academically ready for elementary school. The teachers talked about the importance of small class sizes, and wraparound services like having a social worker or psychologist on staff—both big priorities for AFT.
“I think she was moved by a lot of what she saw today,” Weingarten said of DeVos.
The purpose of the visit wasn’t necessarily to heal all divisions in K-12, an Education Department official said. Weingarten and the secretary demonstrated that they can work on finding common ground. DeVos has never been anti-public school, as some of her critics claim, the official said. The secretary thinks parents should have choices in what type of school their child attends. DeVos herself made a similar point in an op-ed published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in advance of the visit.
Just before coming to Van Wert, Weingarten penned her own op-ed in the local paper, the Van Wert Times-Bulletin, criticizing DeVos’ record of pushing “privatization"—vouchers and charter schools—in Michigan, as well as the Trump budget.
Even in a county where about five times as many people voted for Trump than Clinton, there were protestors. One held up a sign questioning whether DeVos’ policy perscriptions will work for the district: “Zero private high schools in Van Wert. School Choice?” Others were more generic: “Dump Trump” and “Our Public Schools are the [Heart Symbol] of Our Community.”
One protestor, Susan Rigali, whose nephew works at Van Wert High School, said she expected that Weingarten and DeVos chose this corner of Ohio because it isn’t exactly a stronghold of “the resistance"—the nickname activists have given to their grassroots campaign against the Trump admininstration.
And Lucy Rice, a school bus driver from a neighboring town, said she doesn’t expect much to change after DeVos’ visit to Van Wert.
“I kind of feel like, OK, I understand them wanting her to see a good public school,” Rice said. “But I don’t think it’s going to change Betsy DeVos’ policies.”
The district’s teachers don’t wear their politics on their sleeve, but there was plenty of disagreement among Van Wert Elementary staffers, including some who lined up to take a photo with DeVos as she headed out the door.
Monica Donley, a 2nd grade teacher who voted for Trump, doesn’t think enough time has passed to really asses the president on K-12 policy or any other issue. But she isn’t opposed to private-school vouchers. In fact, she might take advantage of them herself, if they were available in nearby Lima, the community she lives in.
But Julie Hammond, the school secretary and another Trump voter, said so far “she’s not impressed” with the president on education or other issues. Her own kids—including a daughter who is pursuing engineering—did well in regular public schools. “Vouchers are dumb,” Hammond said.
Rhonda Mohr, another 2nd grade teacher, describes herself as one of the few people in Van Wert who supported Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, in the presidential race. She’s glad Weingarten brought DeVos to her school. The district, she said, does great work, but isn’t particularly different from thousands like it around the country.
“The more conversations between us, the better,” Mohr said. “We’re all in this together.”
DeVos has visited a handful of public, private, and charter schools since taking office in February. You can keep track of her visits here:
Follow us on Twitter at @PoliticsK12.