- By George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
President Donald Trump touted school choice as a civil rights issue in Orlando on Friday, then returned to the familiar confines of his Mar-a-Lago estate here before heading to the nearby Four Seasons Resort, where he was scheduled to speak to major Republican donors.
Trump arrived on Air Force One at Palm Beach International Airport at 3:44 p.m. for the fourth weekend of the seven since his inauguration. The president waved and gave a thumbs-up to several dozen cheering supporters, but did not personally greet them as he has in some past airport arrivals.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio joined Trump on Friday’s flight, as did presidential daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, White House adviser Jared Kushner, and their children. Ivanka Trump’s family joined the president in his limousine for the brief ride to Mar-a-Lago while Rubio left PBIA separately.
The president’s motorcade arrived at the Four Seasons shortly after 7 p.m. A few dozen protesters — and as many or more police — were outside. Police, some with Plexiglass shields, moved protesters away from the resort entrance, and appeared to arrest one cowbell-banging woman who repeatedly ventured into the street.
Earlier in the day, Trump, Rubio, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, putting a spotlight on the school choice issue that Trump called “the civil rights issue of our time” in his Tuesday address to a joint session of Congress.
St. Andrew is a predominantly black and Hispanic school where most of the students receive tuition assistance from a $559 million Florida program that provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits to businesses who contribute to a scholarship fund for disadvantaged students.
Teacher unions have bitterly opposed the voucher program, saying it diverts money from traditional public schools.
“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,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said before Trump’s visit.
About 98,000 students benefit from the Florida program, according to the nonprofit organization Step Up for Florida, which administers most of the vouchers. The students come from households with an average income of $24,075, and 69 percent of scholarship recipients are black or Hispanic, with 55 percent coming from single-parent homes, Step Up for Florida says.
Trump, DeVos, Scott and Rubio visited a fourth-grade classroom at St. Andrew with about 25 students in matching red polo shirts.
“What are our goals? Where are we going?” teacher Jane Jones asked the class before the presidential entourage arrived.
“College and heaven,” the class replied in unison.
“We’re on our way,” Jones said.
Trump then arrived in the classroom with the school’s principal, Latrina Peters-Gibson.
“A beautiful class. Beautiful students, right?” the president said.
Two of the students, Janayah Chatelier and Landon Fritz, both 10 years old, welcomed Trump. Fritz said he wants to attend Boston University and Chatelier said she wants to go to Johns Hopkins University.
“Want to be a doctor, is that why Johns Hopkins?” Trump asked.
To another student, who said she hoped to open her own business, Trump said: “That’s a good idea. Make a lot of money right? But don’t run for politics after.”
Trump then visited a library to hear from a panel of local educators and beneficiaries of school-choice policies.
Henry Fortier, the superintendent of schools for the Orlando Diocese, acknowledged “there’s a lot of controversy” surrounding school choice.
“I see it as a partnership. It’s not a situation of us versus them,” Fortier said. Of private schools, he said, “It shouldn’t be just for the wealthy who can afford it.”
Trump said St. Andrew is doing a “fantastic job” and that it “enriches both the mind and the soul. That’s a good education.”
Trump paraphrased Martin Luther King in saying he hoped to make inferior education “a thing of the past” and noted his Tuesday characterization of education as a civil rights issue.
“Betsy’s going to lead the charge, right?” Trump said.
“You bet,” DeVos replied.
Trump was scheduled to speak Friday night to the Republican National Committee’s spring retreat dinner at the Four Seasons, which was expected to draw a few hundred GOP donors.
Scott and Rubio are scheduled to speak to the same gathering of Republican contributors today.