Ms. Weingarten and Ms. DeVos made for strange traveling companions. Ms. Weingarten called Ms. DeVos’s confirmation a “sad day for children” and has accused the billionaire secretary of undermining public education by bankrolling school choice initiatives in Michigan.
Ms. DeVos is a staunch supporter of parochial and charter schools and has challenged teachers’ unions. While she says she supports public schools, she has been sharply critical of their performance and believes in expanding options for parents.
The two leaders have also clashed over Mr. Trump’s proposed budget, which would cut the Education Department by $9 billion, targeting programs for poor students, even as it funds a $1.4 billion school choice initiative.
Ms. Weingarten challenged Ms. DeVos to visit a public school system, and the result was the visit to Van Wert, a small district with a robust early childhood program, a nationally recognized robotics team and a community school that helps at-risk students graduate.
“It was clear that this community has invested heart and soul into the students here,” Ms. DeVos said, praising the district.
Ms. Weingarten said the visit “proves that support for public schools transcends politics.”
For teachers and students here, fights over funding and policy are not abstract. Jen Arend, a literacy specialist at Van Wert’s early childhood center, is paid with federal Title I money, which provides additional resources to districts with high concentrations of poverty. Mr. Trump’s budget proposes increasing Title I funding but using it for school choice initiatives.
“I hope she sees we’re more than a line item in the budget,” Ms. Arend said of Ms. DeVos.
At Van Wert High School, Spencer Teman, a senior, showcased his robotics team’s 18-by-18-inch robot, Suzanne, which won the state robotics championship this year. “In our school, opportunities are everywhere, and they should stay here,” said Mr. Teman, 18, who is set to attend Miami University of Ohio next year.
Van Wert, which serves 2,000 students two hours northwest of Columbus, is an unlikely place for a national showdown on education policy, which is largely driven by big-city politics. But it illustrates how politics and public education do not always match up.
About 80 percent of Van Wert’s 13,584 votes in November went to Mr. Trump, and the town is considered among the most conservative in the state.
But “education is different,” said Linda Haycock, a newly elected state school board member who represents Van Wert and 22 other small northwestern Ohio counties. “Because in rural districts, they have the most to lose.”
Mr. Amstutz said that in Van Wert’s schools,…