President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos met with a mix of public, private, and home-school parents and educators for a “parent teacher” conference at the White House Tuesday—their first joint public appearance since DeVos was sworn in after a bruising confirmation process.
“You showed toughness and genius,” Trump told DeVos in introducing her to the group. He asked her if she’d go through it all again. “Probably,” she told him. DeVos and Trump were also joined by Vice President Mike Pence, who cast a tie-breaking vote to put DeVos in office after the Senate deadlocked on her nomination.
In remarks before the conversation, Trump championed what so far has been his administration’s favorite K-12 policy: school choice. On the campaign trail, Trump pitched allowing $20 billion in unspecified federal funding to follow children to any school they choose, including a private school.
“Millions of poor, disadvantaged children are trapped in failing schools, and this crisis—and it really is a crisis ... we’re going to change it around and especially for our African-American communities,” he said seated at a table with parents and educators. “It’s been very, very tough and unfair. That’s why I want every disadvantaged child in America no matter where they live, to have a choice about where they go to school. And it’s worked out so well in some communities where it’s been properly run and properly done.” (The research on student outcomes for both charter schools and private school vouchers, is mixed. Check out this explainer by my colleague, Arianna Prothero).
Trump added that charter schools have been particularly effective in New York City. He did not mention the charters in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, which some in education policy have called the “wild west” of charter schools. (Some context: In a 2015 report, the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools ranked New York in seventh among 43 states in terms of its charter policy, while Michigan came in at 21.)
For her part, DeVos said she was “really excited to be here today with parents and educators, representing traditional public schools, charter public schools, home schools, private schools—a range of choices. And we’re eager to listen and learn from you, your ideas for how we can ensure that all of our kids have an equal opportunity for a high-quality, great education,” according to a White House pool report.
Some on social media noted that although the president specifically referenced African-American students in his remarks, there did not appear to be any African-Americans on the panel of parents and teachers that spoke to DeVos and Trump. (We’ve asked the White House about this and will update if we get a response.)
Trump Asks About Autism
During the question and answer period, Trump asked Jane Quenneville, principal of a Virginia school specializing in special education, if she had seen a big increase in children with autism.
Quenneville told him she had, adding that her school had made changes to accommodate more of those students.
“So what’s going on with autism, when we look at the tremendous increases, really, it’s such an incredible—it’s really a horrible thing to watch,” Trump said. “Maybe we can do something.”
This isn’t the first time that Trump has talked about autism. Trump said during a GOP presidential debate that “autism has become an epidemic” and that it’s gotten “totally out of control.” He appeared to embrace a disproven claim that vaccines may be in some way linked to autism. Trump said during the debate that he believes that vaccines should be given on a different schedule. “I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump said.
Before assuming the presidency, Trump met with vaccine critic Robert Kennedy Jr., and talked to him about forming a commission to study the issue, Kennedy said.