By Kevin Jones
US President Donald Trump visited a Florida Catholic school on Friday, praising the Catholic education system and touting his support for school choice programs.
“You understand how much your students benefit from full education, one that enriches both the mind and the soul. That’s a good combination,” the president told Bishop John Noonan of Orlando at St. Andrew Catholic School March 3.
He toured the pre-K-8th grade school, located in Orlando’s Pine Hills neighborhood, and spoke with students, who presented him with two cards. He visited a fourth grade class, the Associated Press reports.
President Trump responded to a girl who told him she wanted to own her own business, saying she’s “gonna make a lot of money. But don’t run for politics.”
His tour was followed by public comments attended by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Florida Gov. Rick Scott, various Catholic school officials and Bishop Noonan.
There, President Trump reflected on the contributions of Catholic education.
“St. Andrew’s Catholic school represents one of the many parochial schools dedicated to the education of some of our nation’s most disadvantaged children, but they’re becoming just the opposite very rapidly through education and with the help of the school choice programs,” he said.
He praised the school principal, Latrina Peters-Gipson, for her work, saying, “The love of what you do is really fantastic.”
The visit marked the president’s first official trip to a school since he took office. According to the Washington Post, about 300 of the school’s 350 students are beneficiaries of a Florida tax credit program that funds scholarships for families with limited resources.
Henry Fortier, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Orlando, said the visit was an “exciting opportunity to share the good news and the work that we do.” He said school choice has also been an important part of his career in previous administrative roles in the archdioceses of New York and Baltimore.
“I know that there’s a lot of controversy about school choice for parents and lots of people have different opinions, but I see it as a partnership,” Fortier said. “It’s not a situation of us versus them, it’s a situation of us providing opportunities to our parents so that they have the right to choose an education that is appropriate for their children.”
“It shouldn’t be for just the wealthy that can afford it,” he said, lamenting that many working class families do not have the opportunity to choose the education for their children.
Fortier said the diocese’s schools work closely with their public school counterparts.
He said 25 percent of students in the Diocese of Orlando are in the state of Florida’s Step Up tax credit scholarship program. Of those 25 percent, 727 graduated in 2016, a graduation rate of 100 percent with a 99 percent placement in college or the military.
The superintendent touted the schools’ higher-than-average school scores on college entrance exams and student tests.
President Trump, repeating a campaign phrase, said education is “the civil rights issue of our time.”
“It’s why I’ve asked Congress to support a school choice bill. We’ve come a long way, I think. We’re ahead of schedule in so many ways when it comes to education.”
He predicted schools like St. Andrew would have “a fantastic relationship” with the Secretary of Education that would create “a lot of good things for your school and for the entire system.”
Bishop Noonan prayed for the president, his family, and everyone present.
“We pray for this day in dialogue that we may share the good news, and the future of our students,” he said.
President Trump thanked the bishop for his “uplifting prayer” and praised the bishop’s support for schools like St. Andrews.
The president’s visit drew criticism from some public school advocates like Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who characterized the president’s visit as a continuation of an “ideological crusade.”
Weingarten said that many voucher programs do not improve students’ academic outcomes and are not transparent in their spending and teaching policies.
Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor at The Catholic Association, said the president’s visit was appropriate given Catholic schools’ “record of success.” She said Catholic high school students are twice as likely as public school students to graduate college and their high school education is half the cost as public schools.
According to Ferguson, Catholic high schools in inner cities have a 99 percent graduation rate.