VAN WERT — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos toured schools in Van Wert Thursday, saying she enjoyed seeing the needs in a smaller, rural district while taking up a union official’s request to visit a “great public school system.”
DeVos accepted an invitation from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. The invitation was extended on the day of DeVos’ confirmation to the position. Both have been critical of one another in the past but seemed to put their differences aside for the tour.
DeVos listened as school officials related the impact of school funding problems. She said she was aware of the issues, especially for smaller, rural districts, and planned to digest those needs as she plotted the course of the country’s schools. However, she remained solid in her stance that school choice still has to be part of the solution.
Twenty percent of students in this area are still electing to attend outside the school district, DeVos said. “That is an opportunity we should continue.”
DeVos visited the Van Wert Early Childhood Center and other buildings in the district. She heard a presentation from the Van Wert Robotics Club. She said it was obvious that Van Wert schools is offering a quality education. She also participated in several roundtable discussions, including one on special education.
“Having visited the Van Wert City Schools, it is clear they are meeting the needs of their students,” DeVos said. “I got the notion that each child is being given what they need.”
Weingarten has been outspoken against school choice, saying it hurts public schools. The current proposed U.S. Department of Education budget would make cuts to public school programs while setting aside money for charter and private schools.
“I have read in some form or another that we are combatant,” Weingarten said of her interaction with DeVos. “Van Wert proved today that support for public schools transcends politics.”
Van Wert Federation of Teachers President Jeff Hood said he felt the points that the union wanted to get across to DeVos were delivered effectively.
“It ended up a good day. A lot of our educators were highlighted,” Hood said. “She saw the product of our work and that we offer a great education here at Van Wert.”
Van Wert Superintendent Ken Amstutz said the district is not against school choice but would like to have charter and private schools held to the same standards. Many public school officials feel that they are held to more strict standards than their counterparts.
“We want to be on an equal playing field,” Amstutz said. “”If the rules are the same for everybody, we feel we stack up pretty well.”
DeVos said she will take what she learned in Van Wert and consider it for future educational guidelines and decisions.
“What goes on in districts to help students prepare goes beyond Washington,” DeVos said. “I will have to digest the information and think about that.”
DeVos did agree on two problems that were mentioned throughout the day while on her visit.
“I acknowledge, and have acknowledged for many months, rural areas face unique challenges and unique opportunities,” DeVos said Thursday, in response to a question about whether school choice would work in an area like rural Ohio. “I think the fear of a negative impact on a school that is meeting the needs of its students is very low, actually.”
She also said that districts should not be forced into a “one-size-fits-all” description.
“The needs here are not going to be the same as New York or Chicago has,” DeVos said. “We do not need to force fit standards to all districts.”
Sen. Matt Huffman said the goal is not to hurt public education, but school choice still has to be available.
“I have known and worked with Betsy (DeVos) for more than 10 years,” Huffman said. “One thing I know, she is committed to kids getting a good education. Public schools will always be the dominant part of that. But in some cases, it is not the best choice. For parents to have a better choice before, they had to move into a better school district. School choice is for those who can’t afford to do that.”
A small group of protesters were in the parking lot holding signs, such as “School public schools,” “School choice is the real threat to rural schools, not grizzly bears,” and “School choice = less $$ public schools.” One protester said he did not want to see “one dime of our tax money going to charter schools.”
Reach Lance Mihm at 567-242-0409 or on Twitter @LanceMihm.