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DeVos Touts School Choice, Individual Freedom During Visits To Leon County Schools

United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Leon County Tuesday, making stops at Holy Comforter Episcopal School and the Florida State University Research School. DeVos used the trip to champion school choice and individual liberties.

Trump Administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos presents herself as a champion of religious education and school choice. It’s fitting that her first stop in Tallahassee was at Holy Comforter Episcopal School.

Crosses are prominently hung in classrooms and the school honor code directs students to let God’s love guide them. DeVos first visited the 5th grade classroom of Mrs. Russell to catch a lesson on idioms.

“Water under the bridge…I wonder what that means?" Russell prompted the class. "I wonder if Madam Secretary knows what that means?”

DeVos logged her answer through an online program with the rest of the class. She then moved across the hall to meet Mrs. Cureton’s kindergarteners and pulled out Dr. Seuss’s Oh The Places You’ll Go.

“Congratulations! Today is your day! You’re off to great places. You’re off and away!" she read. "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose!”

"Instead of focusing on buildings and systems, we should just focus on individual students."

Holy Comforter charges more than $11,000 per year in tuition. That enables school-issued MacBook Pros, programmable robots made of Legos, and 3-D printers in the science labs. Based on resources alone, the places these students will go could be very different than those at Oak Ridge or Riley Elementary. Those public schools both earned D grades this year. But DeVos says choice and individual liberty should trump other issues.

“So again I would just say, instead of focusing on buildings and systems, we should just focus on individual students,” she said.

When questioned about solutions for chronically underperforming schools, she says…

“Parents should be more and more empowered to make the right choice for their child, for their children to send them to a school or schools that are right for them," DeVos said. "Florida has made great steps in that direction. I think that needs to and will continue.”

Credit Kate Payne via WFSU
Denise Howard protesting Secretary Betsy DeVos's visit to Leon County.

For those who can’t leave a failing system, it’s not clear what DeVos’s solution is.

Denise Howard is a mother of three, with children at FSU’s lab school and Conley Elementary. She came to DeVos’ second visit pushing her youngest in a stroller, and carrying a sign that reads ‘Keep Public Schools Funded’.

“She wants to funnel funds away from public schools and put them in charter schools and private schools and I disagree with that,” Howard said.

Howard criticizes DeVos’s support of for-profit charters. She doesn’t want her child’s school to be lumped into that category.

“I think that’s what upsets me some. If she is trying to use Florida High, Florida State University Schools as this shining example of charter schools. That is not her brand of charter school,” she said.

FSUS is actually considered public, and treated as its own school district.

DeVos’s visit got pushback from other parents, and from the Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union. The FEA argues that DeVos’s policies favor alternative schools, which don’t have to meet the same accountability requirements. At the writing of this story, DeVos has no plans to visit a Leon County public school.