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Vice President Mike Pence pushes school choice during visit to Catholic elementary in West Philadelphia

Pence said he came to Philadelphia congratulate Pennsylvania for “leading the way" in the school choice movement.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos were at the school for an event about school choice.
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at St. Francis de Sales School in West Philadelphia on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos were at the school for an event about school choice.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Vice President Mike Pence used a visit Wednesday to a West Philadelphia Catholic school to advocate for school-choice programs, describing Pennsylvania as “leading the way” in the movement and saying that all children should have the right to pick the schools they want.

“No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school,” Pence said at St. Francis de Sales School, where he was joined by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Pence’s call to expand programs that provide scholarships for children to attend private schools came on the heels of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, and as Trump aims to repeat his 2016 upset victory in Pennsylvania this fall. Pence and DeVos were expected to appear at a Women for Trump campaign event outside Harrisburg later Wednesday, with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

The vice president’s remarks in Philadelphia echoed Trump’s speech promoting school choice — a conservative touchstone that could appeal to his base, but a movement that opponents contend is eroding traditional public education. His comments also struck a nerve in a city where the School District has been battered by competition from charter schools and faces ongoing asbestos hazards.

“How dare Vice President Pence and Betsy DeVos be in this town today and not deal with the asbestos in these buildings,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said, standing outside Hopkinson Elementary, the eighth Philadelphia school building to be closed because of damaged asbestos.

Weingarten said money from the federal government, as well as state and local dollars, is needed to fix Philadelphia schools’ environmental crisis.

At St. Francis, a school run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pence said the Trump administration was committed to broadening school choice and will continue to push a federal tax-credit program proposed by DeVos that would fund scholarships, similar to the model Pennsylvania already uses.

He pointed to two parents in the crowd whose children attend St. Francis with the help of scholarships through Pennsylvania’s tax-credit programs.

Republicans in Pennsylvania have pushed for the expansion of the programs, which grant tax credits to businesses and individuals who donate to organizations that give scholarships to students, arguing that students should have the right to choose any school and avoid those considered low-performing. Public education advocates warn against weakening the public school system, forfeiting tax revenue that could be used for traditional schools.

Pence and DeVos attacked Gov. Tom Wolf for vetoing legislation last year that would have greatly expanded the state’s largest scholarship program. At the time, Wolf said the proposal lacked “fairness and accountability” for tax dollars being spent, and said the state’s “structurally deteriorating” public schools should be the priority. Wolf ultimately approved a smaller, $25 million increase in the budget.

The K-12 scholarship programs total $185 million this year. More than 50,000 Pennsylvania students receive scholarships; conservative advocates say an additional 50,000 students have sought them.

Among them was a Philadelphia fourth grader, Janiyah Davis, who was in the audience for Trump’s speech Tuesday. Davis, who is receiving a scholarship that will be personally funded by DeVos, traveled with her mother and Pence from Washington to Philadelphia on Wednesday but didn’t accompany them to the school.

» READ MORE: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos personally funding ‘opportunity scholarship’ for Philly girl cited by President Trump

Behind Pence as he spoke were students, clad in blazers and plaid jumpers, seated on several rows of risers and holding small American flags. In the audience were more students, school staff, charter school and choice advocates, including state House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny).

Sister Mary McNulty, St. Francis’ principal, said 87% of the K-8′s approximately 500 students receive scholarships. Yearly tuition is $5,200 for one child and $4,000 per child for families with more than one enrolled, according to the school.

The scholarships “mean everything to me,” McNulty said.

She said she “gladly hosted” Pence and DeVos, whose visit was arranged through the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state’s Catholic dioceses, because she supports the idea of a federal scholarship proposal: “If this would go to the federal level, we could help so many more families.”

» READ MORE: Pa. House Speaker touts Betsy DeVos’ tax credit plan for school scholarship donations

Outside the school were dueling demonstrations — with competing agendas — just feet from one another.

On the corner of 47th and Windsor Streets were dozens of labor union workers gathered with signs, demanding the reopening of the bankrupt, shuttered Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery. The White House has become involved in efforts to keep the site an oil-processing facility.

Carolyn McCoy held a sign that read: “Move the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery to Mar-a-Lago,” a reference to the president’s South Florida resort.

McCoy, 65, who lives two blocks from St. Francis, said she had to make her voice heard on environmental issues like the PES refinery, as well as support of the public school system, which she sees as under attack by the administration’s school-choice-heavy platform. Not to mention that Pence, who has been condemned by the LGBTQ community, chose to come to one of the most queer-friendly neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

“He chose a neighborhood that’s really going to react to his antigay words and actions,” she said.

Chelsea Downs, 35, another West Philly resident, said she was frustrated by Pence’s mere presence: “It’s pretty infuriating.”

Some in West Philadelphia on Wednesday opted for a quieter resistance. In addition to the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren lawn signs that dotted the streets, others put up special signs greeting Pence. Al Airone, whose home was on Pence’s motorcade route, hung a simple cardboard sign on his porch that read: “Dump Pence and Trump.”

“I have no problem with disruption in the neighborhood. This is a welcoming place,” said Airone, 72, who said he is a member of St. Francis de Sales Parish. “I have a problem with the person. It’s the policies of the whole administration.”

Staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.