Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited an Ohio school district Thursday at the invitation of one of her chief critics, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who used the occasion to make a case for investment in public schools.
The two combatants in the nation's education battles met for several hours, touring classrooms and hearing from teachers and students in Van Wert, a rural community of about 11,000 in northwestern Ohio.
Weingarten said her goal was to show DeVos the good things happening in public schools. She also wanted the secretary to see how the Trump administration's proposed budget cuts would undermine successful programs in a place where voters overwhelmingly supported President Trump, and where there are few choices beyond public schools.
Trump has proposed slashing the Education Department's spending by $9 billion, including funds for after-school programs, teacher training and smaller class sizes.
"Van Wert proves that support for public schools transcends politics," Weingarten said at a news conference where she thanked DeVos for making the trip. "We wanted to cram as much into today as possible so that she and I saw what is possible . . . in terms of public education."
DeVos, a longtime advocate for vouchers and charter schools, has emphasized that she favors providing more choices to families, and has disputed claims that she wants to dismantle public schools. Before Thursday, she had visited eight schools while in office, including two charter schools, two private schools, three traditional public schools and one school run by the Department of Defense.
She called her visit to Van Wert "inspiring" and praised the district for its efforts to meet the needs of all students. She also reiterated her support for extending choice to more families, noting that nearly 1 in 5 children living in Van Wert choose to attend a public school outside the district. "The goal is to have every child be in an educational environment that's best for them," she said.
DeVos said she wants to help lift burdensome mandates and paperwork requirements that get in the way of teaching. Asked by a reporter for specific examples, she didn't offer any, and said she was speaking broadly.
"We know there is paperwork everywhere, in anything to do with government, and some of it is good and necessary - but there's a lot of it that might not be so necessary," DeVos said.
If Thursday's visit marked a willingness to engage despite deep disagreement, there is unlikely to be much in the way of a lasting kumbaya.
Weingarten has not minced words about the new education secretary, describing her as "an ultra-wealthy heiress who uses her money to game the system" and saying that the Senate's narrow vote to confirm her in February was "a sad day for children."
On Wednesday, Weingarten published an op-ed in the Van Wert Times Bulletin that criticized DeVos for pushing "failed privatization strategies" and for proposing a budget that would take a "meat cleaver" to public education.
During DeVos' three-decade career as an advocate for school vouchers and charter schools, she has been openly critical of teachers unions, describing them as standing in the way of change, particularly for children most in need of better schools.
But shortly after taking office, DeVos spoke to Weingarten by phone, and the two agreed to meet at least twice - once to tour a traditional public school of the union's choosing, and once to visit a "choice school" - a charter school, perhaps, or a private school accepting tuition vouchers - identified by DeVos.
The union chose Van Wert at the urging of Jeff Hood, the president of the school district's AFT local. He told the Toledo Blade he was proud of the Van Wert's success in the face of challenges that accompany rural poverty. Half of the district's 2,000 students come from low-income families, but 96 percent graduate from high school on time.
Hood wants to show DeVos that children in places like Van Wert need more than advocacy for alternatives to public schools. "Charter schools and private schools and vouchers are not going to mean much to people in Van Wert," he said, according to the Blade.
Van Wert has invested in early-childhood education and in a community-school model that connects children with social services they need to confront the challenges they are facing outside the classroom.
The state education department gave Van Wert an A for its graduation rate and for progress that students show in math and reading from one year to the next. But the district got a D for the proportion of students reaching proficiency and above on state tests and two Fs, for closing achievement gaps and for the literacy rate among children in kindergarten through grade 3.
Weingarten said school rating systems in Ohio and other states are flawed, relying heavily on math and reading test scores that fail to offer insight into a school's real successes and failures. The new Every Student Succeeds Act opens the way for states to develop better ways to measure what's working in schools and what is not, she said.