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Trump Visits Private School to Promote School Choice

President Donald Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, his daughter Ivanka and Janayah Chatelier, 10 (L) listen to Landon Fritz, 10, during a tour of Saint Andrew Catholic School, March 3, 2017, in Orlando, Fla.

President Donald Trump visited a classroom at a private, religious school in Florida on Friday, signaling that his education agenda will focus on school choice.

He started his tour of St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando with a visit to a fourth-grade classroom.

Trump shook hands with a pair of students who told him they were learning about the history of Florida.

He then joked to one girl who said she wanted to own her own business that she's "gonna make a lot of money. But don't run for politics."

Trump was joined on the tour by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Teachers' unions were quick to criticize the visit, saying it shows Trump's hostility toward public schools and his intention to turn education into a profit-making industry.

In his address to Congress this week, Trump called education "the civil rights issue of our time" and asked lawmakers to pass a bill that would fund school choice for disadvantaged young people, including minority children. He did not offer any details.

Among his guests at the speech was Denisha Merriweather, who used Florida's school voucher program to attend a private high school that she credits with turning her life around. Many of St. Andrew's students attend the school using the same voucher program as Merriweather, said White House spokesman Ninio Fetalvo.

DeVos has a long history of promoting charter schools and vouchers. Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars, but run by private groups and have more freedom over curriculum, staff and budget. Vouchers are essentially publicly funded scholarships given to low-income families to help cover private-school tuition.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said earlier in the week that education is "a top priority" for the president.

"He has said many times before that education has the ability to level the playing field for the next generation," Spicer said, adding that Trump "is determined to provide choice for every parent and opportunities for every child, regardless of their zip code."

St. Andrew Catholic School teaches 350 children from pre-K to eighth grade. The school defines its mission as "developing the students' spirituality and creativity in order to be disciples of Christ in the 21st century." A photo on the school's website shows a smiling boy in school uniform holding a sign that reads "My goals: College. Heaven."

"It's a very powerful message," said Samuel Abramson, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, referring to Trump's choice of school to visit. "Advocates of traditional public schools should be worried because this means a diversion of funds from public coffers and thus support for public education."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that by visiting a private Catholic school, Trump is continuing an "ideological crusade."

Weingarten said that in many cases voucher programs have not improved children's academic outcomes. She added that voucher programs are often not transparent in how they spend public dollars and in what the kids are taught.

"To borrow a word from President Trump — it's so `sad' that the president and his secretary of education have demonstrated such an antipathy toward public schools," Weingarten said in a statement. "Trump is in Florida to push choice and a backdoor voucher proposal as a way to turn education into a commodity."