U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and fifth graders Kierden Yoh, left, and Gage Stemen talk about the class lecture about the Great Depression at Van Wert Elementary School.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT
VAN WERT, Ohio — Barely a hint of the biting rhetoric lobbed at U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos by teachers’ unions and other public school advocates surfaced Thursday as she toured Van Wert City Schools alongside an ardent critic.
President Trump’s cabinet pick, controversial among many public school educators for her charter school support, spent several amicable hours in this rural northwest Ohio district with Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers.
The two disagree on school choice and the big cuts proposed in the federal education budget, but they found common ground in praising the 2,200-student Van Wert school system.
IN PICTURES: Betsy DeVos visits Van Wert for school tour
“It’s been a very inspiring and wonderful day,” Ms. DeVos said at a news conference after hours of touring schools and classrooms. “It is clear that this community has invested heart and soul into the students here and the students that you serve.”
Ms. Weingarten previously has blasted the secretary for her “reckless and extreme ideology” and her lack of public education experience.
On Thursday, she acknowledged their roles as “combatants” and glanced at Ms. DeVos while mentioning the proposed federal budget, which would cut $9 billion in discretionary education funding while spending an additional $1.4 billion on school-choice programs.
Their conversation was cordial, collegial even, though they didn’t walk away in agreement.
The union chief focused on public education in places such as Van Wert, a conservative county-seat community about 95 miles southwest of Toledo.
“Van Wert proves that support for public schools transcends politics and probably that is one of the most important lessons. The more we can make the education of our children all of our responsibility regardless of whether we’re Democratic or Republican, the more we will help the future of America,” Ms. Weingarten said.
In the high school parking lot, students greeted the Republican secretary by parking about eight pickup trucks in a row to display a large Trump banner and numerous American flags. President Trump received more than 70 percent of the votes in Van Wert County in the November election.
This unusual meeting in an unexpected place occurred at the invitation of the Van Wert Federation of Teachers president. Jeff Hood, a long-time health and physical education teacher, asked Ms. Weingarten during a February town hall-style phone call how he might get the newly confirmed secretary to visit his district.
Ms. DeVos accepted the offer.
“This is a day that showcases what we do in public education,” said Van Wert Superintendent Ken Amstutz.
“I think the greatest thing is that our people come to work to benefit kids every day, all day long. I think she sees that.”
The two visitors started their day at the district’s early childhood center, which serves 325 preschool and kindergarten students — including those with special needs. Staff also provide speech, occupational, and physical therapy and social work services.
The high-profile visitors met with preschool and kindergarten teachers and parents, then stopped by a brightly decorated classroom. Both quickly knelt down and chatted eye-to-eye with the youngsters about coloring projects and dinosaurs.
Later, they met engineering students. When the robotics team mentioned they had named one of their robots “Bessie,” Ms. DeVos joked that sounded “dangerously close to ‘Betsy’.”
Zane McElroy, a middle school engineering teacher who coaches the 13-member high school robotics team, said he hopes Ms. DeVos sees the great things public schools are doing.
“As far as a federal standpoint, I think it’s just a recognition of what the program does for our students,” he said. “It’s not just building robots; there’s problem solving, there’s team building, there’s math involved, programming, really showing them what careers are out there.”
The group moved on to a fifth-grade classroom, where a teacher gave a lesson on the Great Depression.
Ms. DeVos and Ms. Weingarten then joined a closed-door conversation with local special education teachers.
At the closing news conference, the secretary said that she’s heard frustrations about the amount of time-consuming paperwork required by state and federal regulations.
“I look forward to doing what we can, and I think in many cases it’s doing less of what we’ve done in the past to allow you to do best what you do to meet each student’s need,” she said.
And she reiterated her support for school choice — advocacy that drew the ire of about a dozen protesters who spent the day outside the middle school.
Van Wert County Democratic Party chairman Dan Miller said the group didn’t want to disrupt activities, but Ms. Devos should know “that even deep in these red states there’s opposition to her.”
Charter schools and vouchers don’t help students in places such as Van Wert, Mr. Miller said. Other school options are very limited and those programs divert money from traditional public schools, he said.
But Ms. DeVos defended school choice, saying it can make sense in rural areas. She said some small districts can use virtual learning to provide a wider range of instruction in subjects they wouldn’t otherwise offer.
About 20 percent of students in the Van Wert district have chosen to attend other schools, she said. Van Wert has a small Catholic elementary school and some students attend neighboring public school districts.
“The reality is that parents and students only make choices if there are choices available to begin with, and secondly they only make them if that’s the right choice for them. And so, I think, the fear of a negative impact on a school that is meeting the needs of its students is very low actually,” Ms. DeVos said.