DeVos, Weingarten impressed with VWCS
DAVE MOSIER/independent editor
While U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6-million-member American Federation of Teachers, don’t agree on much when it comes to education, both were pleased with the innovative educational programs and the passion and support for students displayed Thursday in the Van Wert City Schools.
“It’s been an inspiring and wonderful day,” DeVos said during a press conference held at the end of a long day filled with building tours, program demonstrations, and roundtable discussions. DeVos and Weingarten were joined on the visit by Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria, Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper, Linda Haycock, District 1 representative to the State Board of Education, and State Representative Craig Riedel.
“Van Wert proves that support for public schools transcends politics,” Weingarten said. “The more we can make the education of our children all of our responsibility, regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, the more we will help the future of America, and this public school district has proven that point over, and over, and over again.”
DeVos also praised the local business community for its support of the Van Wert schools and their students.
“I’ve observed a really important piece that isn’t necessarily present in every community, and that is a real engagement by the job providers and job creators in this community to invest in the schools, invest in opportunities for their students, and that’s a really great advantage that this school has,” the Education Secretary said.
After seeing demonstrations by the school’s successful robotics and engineering programs — with projects from the elementary level through high school — as well as children learning in Laura Foster’s preschool class, and a class project on The Depression in Nate Hoverman’s fifth-grade class, both Weingarten and DeVos were complimentary of what Van Wert has done in a community where more than half the students are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program.
The unusual visit by the high-profile education “combatants” was surprisingly non-combative. Weingarten, who opposed DeVos’ nomination and has repeatedly criticized the Trump administration for its proposed $9.2-billion cut in education funding, and DeVos, who has called public schools a “dead end” while touting private schools and school choice as the future of education, were both on their best behavior Thursday, citing the positives they saw at Van Wert. It was also clear, though, DeVos hadn’t changed her mind on school choice.
During a tour-ending news conference, the Education Secretary noted that approximately 20 percent of Van Wert’s students opt to attend other schools under open enrollment, which she sees both as a positive for both parents and students, and proof that her pro-school choice stance is valid.
“That’s a wonderful thing that they have that opportunity, and it’s an opportunity that we should continue to offer, because the goal for every child is to be in an education environment that is best for them,” DeVos said, “and that’s the overarching goal, I think: to keep our eyes focused on what’s right for each child.”
However, Van Wert Treasurer Mike Ruen, who has to deal with numbers showing the district’s loss of more than $1 million a year in tax dollars to open enrollment, didn’t agree with DeVos’ assessment that school choice decisions were usually made in the best interests of students.
Ruen noted his opinion that a majority of open enrollment decisions in the district are made emotionally, with many coming from parents who live in the Van Wert district, but were former students of neighboring districts who want their kids to attend those schools.
In fact, when the quality of Van Wert’s project-based learning programs, its engineering, biomedical, and robotics programs, and its large overall number of Advanced Placement and other courses are taken into account, students who leave the district often limit their educational opportunities.
Overall, though, local educators and administrators were pleased with the national attention given the school district by a large contingent of national and regional media.
Superintendent Ken Amstutz, who spent Thursday escorting DeVos and Weingarten around the district, along with Assistant to the Superintendent Bill Clifton and Van Wert Federation of Teachers President Jeff Hood — whose efforts and conversations with Weingarten and other AFT officials led to DeVos’s visit — has repeatedly stated that Van Wert does an excellent job of educating its students, especially when the community’s economic and social challenges are taken into consideration. He also notes that the State Report Card has been a moving target the past few years — to which a large majority of school districts can attest — and needs to remain stable so districts can assess test results and make needed changes.
Weingarten stressed Thursday that public schools need adequate funding to do their jobs, while also continuing her criticism of the Trump education funding cuts.
“There’s no secret that we’re fighting some of the budget cuts,” Weingarten said, adding her opinion that Van Wert and many other school districts nationwide would be harmed by the cuts.
But she and DeVos did agree that, despite its challenges, the local school district has been very innovative and does a great job of supporting its students.
“I think today’s visit was much more about the proactive positive: what happens when schools work together, when they engage in the strategies that work for kids; and I think that’s what we saw today,” Weingarten said.
DeVos said she was also pleased overall with her visit to Van Wert.
“I think it’s really important for me to make visits like this, and to get to schools all across the country, as I’ve already done in a variety of states, because what goes on to help students prepare themselves for their future happens outside of Washington, to the greatest extent,” she noted. “That’s where the rubber meets the road, and that’s where we have to be addressing the needs of the students. …”
Both women also learned from two roundtables held Thursday, the first with preschool and kindergarten teachers in the Early Childhood Center, and the second with district special education teachers in the Green Room of the Niswonger Performing Arts Center of Northwest Ohio.
Both DeVos and Weingarten also both agreed with one of complaints voiced by local educators: teachers spend too much time doing unneeded paperwork that could better be spent educating students.
DeVos said she would work on a solution to the federal part of that problem.