March 10, 2017
Today a week has passed since President Trump made his historic first visit to any school, public or nonpublic, independent or faith based, while in office. On behalf of our system of 240 Catholic schools in Florida, it was a true honor and a privilege to have him choose St. Andrew Catholic School in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Orlando for his March 3rd tour and school choice roundtable.
On a personal note, I was grateful to be one of the nine observers who stepped into the back of St. Andrew Catholic School’s library that day to witness the roundtable portion of the visit. Although President Trump’s time at the school was limited, we can learn a lot from his visit plus key parts of his joint address to Congress given earlier that same week. Namely, the need to empower parents as the primary educators of their children is an issue of paramount importance to society. And school choice is rightfully assuming its place within the forefront of policy discussions at both the state and federal levels.
While President Trump was interacting with the nearly 20 parents, students, teachers and others gathered at the roundtable, his exchange with Denisha Merriweather, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program alumna who has at times been dubbed “the poster child” for school choice, was especially noteworthy.
“I was honored that Denisha joined Melania and myself as our guest to my address to Congress,” the President stated. “Denisha is the first in her family to graduate high school and college, and is about to complete her master's degree in social work, right?” The comment drew polite applause from the various participants. From there, the President went on to state: “And Denisha, we want millions more to have the same chance to achieve the great success that you're achieving right now. And you think that can be done, I'll bet, right?”
Without missing a beat, Denisha replied: “Of course.”
It was then how the President made the following observation: “Look at that. Her eyes light up.”
It was in this moment and during similar exchanges that the President used the “bully pulpit” to bring the school choice movement to the forefront of policy discussions. As this whole discussion was advanced, it was also very exciting to have U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Florida Governor Rick Scott and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio take part in St. Andrew Catholic School’s big day.
While St. Andrew’s was chosen for this event, there are many other schools in Florida and across the nation that also deserve praise for their noble efforts to help ensure that the nation’s schoolchildren develop their God-given talents and abilities.
In short, the President’s visit was about helping all schoolchildren reach their full academic potential. The fact that a Catholic school was chosen should not discourage public schools which have their own rich and noble tradition in our nation’s history.
Catholic schools in Florida serve more than 86,000 students from Pre-K to 12 but many more Catholic students are served in public schools. The Conference advocates for the strong schools needed to serve all children, whether public or nonpublic.
This being noted, for too long, parents across the nation have lacked viable "options on the table" to meet the academic needs of their own unique children. While Florida is considered a leading state for school choice programs, work remains to be done even here so that no family believes that they are hamstrung by the limited educational options they have available.