Trump talks school choice, meets 4th graders, parents at Florida Catholic school

Days after urging Congress to fund education choice for low-income students, President Trump visited a private school in Florida where nearly 300 students are enrolled under a state program.

The choice of St. Andrews Catholic School in Orlando for his first presidential classroom visit was seen as a clear signal that Trump’s educational agenda will place a priority on school choice. Accompanied by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and first daughter Ivanka Trump, the president toured a fourth-grade classroom.

“College and heaven,” the students, from mostly low-income households, replied in unison when Trump asked what goals they had set, according to the pool report.

Trump, who in a Tuesday address to Congress called education “the civil rights issue of our time” and urged a national school-choice bill, followed the classroom visit with a roundtable discussion on the issue with teachers and parents.

DeVos’ first trip to a school after being narrowly confirmed by the Senate came on Feb. 10, and was to a public school -- Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, D.C. Her reception was chilly, as protesters temporarily blocked her from going inside. DeVos, a vocal supporter of school choice and vouchers, is a frequent target of criticism by public school advocates and teachers unions.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Friday’s visit by Trump and the entourage that accompanied him is the first in a “series of important events” related to the president’s education agenda.

Trump’s choice of a Catholic school was not well-received by teachers unions. Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers president, called it “sad” that Trump’s first visit was to a private school.

“It’s sad that rather than listening to the public they are sworn to represent and who have a deep connection to public schools, Trump and DeVos’ first official joint trip is to a religious school, which they use as a backdrop for their ideological crusade,” Weingarten said in a statement.

“Trump is in Florida to push school choice and a backdoor voucher proposal as a way to turn education into a commodity,” she added.

During the campaign, Trump floated the idea of a $20 billion block grant to be used to expand charter and private-school choice options, but his administration has yet to provide specifics on how that would be funded.

At St. Andrews, nearly 300 students are enrolled under the state’s tax credit scholarship program. Trump promoted the Florida model of school choice during his address to Congress when he invited a scholarship recipient, Denisha Merriweather, to sit in the gallery and recounted her success in his speech.

It is not clear whether the Florida model will serve as a basis for Trump. An administration official told Fox News it is “too early to know exactly what [a Trump administration plan] will look like.”

In Florida, 97,926 scholarships worth up to $5,886 were distributed in the current academic year under the Step Up program, which is entirely funded by corporate contributions given in exchange for dollar-for-dollar tax credits. Some 1,712 private schools admitted students whose average household income is $24,075.

Whatever the funding model, any effort to advance school choice faces opposition.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, charged Trump’s Tuesday address is evidence he is “pursuing a failed agenda that will steal taxpayer dollars from public education to fund private schools through a national voucher program.”

But Ron Matus of the Step-Up Foundation, which oversees Florida’s choice program, told Fox News the Florida model has actually saved money.

“The actual value of this scholarship is less than educating a student in public schools, and eight different studies have shown that the fiscal impact of the program is that money is actually saved and can be invested in public schools,” said Matus.