Ever since she assumed office in February, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the staunchest proponent of school choice to occupy that Cabinet-level post since it was created in 1980, has drawn more than a small share of controversy.
Her nomination was approved by the Senate on a 51-50 vote decided by Vice President Mike Pence, the first time in U.S. history that a Cabinet nominee's confirmation was determined by a vice president's tie-breaking vote.
In large part due to her support of school choice, voucher programs and charter schools, her initial visits to many public schools throughout the country sometimes have received a chilly, even openly hostile, reception from school faculties and administrators.
So it is no surprise that DeVos’ visit last week to Tallahassee, which did not include a visit to a traditional public school, got a cold shoulder by both the Florida Education Association and by Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna.
“It’s obvious that the secretary and our federal government have very little respect for our traditional public school system," Hanna told the Tallahassee Democrat. "And it’s insulting that she’s going to visit the capital of the state of Florida, to visit a charter school, a private school and a voucher school."
But as it relates to Franklin County, DeVos’ visit included dialogue with three influential people in education here –Superintendent Traci Moses, State Senator Bill Montford, and the Rev. R. B. Holmes, owner of WOCY Cross Country 106.5, the Eastpoint-based FM station which broadcasts Seahawk sports as part of its support for county athletics.
On Aug. 30, after DeVos had made official visits the day before to the private Holy Comforter Episcopal School and the charter Florida State University High School, DeVos visited Bethel Christian Academy, a voucher school run by Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, where Holmes pastors.
“I thought it was important to bring the secretary of education, so people could have a chance to hear her vision and to have a positive conversation,” said Holmes. “I thought it is better to talk to a person rather than at a person.
“She stayed with us for three hours, which I thought was very commendable,” he said.
Among the superintendents Holmes invited to the event at the church school was Moses, along with superintendents from Columbia, Duval, Jefferson, Madison and Washington counties. Montford invited two more, from Wakulla and Bay counties.
Moses said she was asked to speak, with no prior knowledge of this speaking opportunity.
“I spoke on the fact that while I do believe that school choice is a good avenue for parents to seek out the best possible education for their children, it is imperative for all schools to be evaluated, funded, and held accountable with equitable rules and regulations,” she said.
“I also spoke about the dire issue of recruitment and retention of teachers and staff that many schools and districts across the nation face,” said Moses.
The superintendent said she expressed her concerns “over students entering kindergarten behind due to lack of opportunity for quality, early childhood education programs.” Moses also addressed the issue of equitable funding and allocation of resources for small and rural school districts.
“I am charged with providing the students in my district with the same quality education as students in much larger districts with more funding and resources,” Moses said. “I want equitable funding and accountability for all schools in Florida and in the United States.”
Montford said the first hour of DeVos' visit addressed elementary and secondary education, and the second hour historic black colleges and universities, which included representatives from Edward Waters University, Bethune-Cookman University, Florida A&M University, and Florida Memorial University.
“The secretary spent much of the time taking notes and comments,” said Montford. “It was more of a fact-finding session for her, that was what it was designed to do. It was not a fire-and-brimstone type of meeting. She was very receptive to concerns both from superintendents and officials
“The question is what will she do with the concerns that were expressed?” he said.
Montford, a veteran educator who now serves as chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said he has been a supporter of charter schools since the mid-1990s, but has watched the concept evolve and expand to the point where he has reservations about the state’s latest step towards greater school choice.
“I have serious reservations with what the state is doing relative to charter schools. There should not be two sets of standards,” he said.
Montford argued against the passage of HB 7069, a massive bill that covered everything from recess to charter schools among its two dozen or so components.
“In this bill there are some very good points. However, what we did with charter schools was cut the school boards out of the decision-making process and that was not good,” he said. “It was not a good bill, and it passed by one vote. A lot of colleagues felt like the governor would veto it but he didn’t.”
Eleven districts throughout the state, representing more than 1 million students, have joined in a lawsuit against the bill, but Franklin, like many other of the state’s smallest districts, is not among them.
“I’m a traditionalist. I believe in school choice; I believe in charters,” Montford said. “I also believe in the constitution of Florida that clearly put the power in the hands of local school boards. This bill clearly is an erosion of those powers and responsibilities and that gives me grave concern and grave pause.”
The state senator began the session by welcoming DeVos to the “best Senate district in the state.”
“it’s common knowledge her background is not steeped in education,” he said Tuesday. “There are some purists who would say her background is weak in education. There are others who would say ‘That’s what we need. We need a reformer who is less constrained with a background in education.' That’s the age old argument.”
One thing both Montford and Holmes were adamant about is that the profit motive has no place in primary and secondary education.
“Education should not be a for-profit enterprise. I believe those people elected by the communities know better than some bureaucrat sitting in Washington or some CEO from another state whose motive is profit,” Montford said.
“I am not a proponent of for-profit schools, said Holmes. “You have to be going in the business to have to help students.”
Holmes, who said he voted for Hilary Clinton in last year’s presidential education, said it was important to host DeVos.
“She is shaping the education agenda for the next several years,” he said. “She was very engaging, very transparent, extremely thoughtful. It was a time for respect, not for any booing or name-calling.
“It was about understanding everybody can go to a good school, regardless of race, zip code, or national origin,” Holmes said, “All kids are different. All kids have various needs.”
Part of DeVos’ agenda has been to promote a Trump administration budget proposal that would cut federal spending on public schools by $9 billion, while directing an additional $1.4 billion to school choice programs.
The Trump proposal includes $1 billion to encourage school districts to adopt an open enrollment program that enables money to follow a student to the public school of his or her choice. It also diverts $250 million toward new private school choice programs and bolsters charter school financing with an additional $168 million.