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What you should know about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary pick — and what her choice might tell us about his plans

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Betsy

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary.

“I am honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again,” DeVos tweeted Wednesday. “The status quo in ed is not acceptable.”

DeVos, an advocate for school vouchers, has chaired the Michigan Republican party and played a key role in some major education policy decisions there in recent years. But unlike former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and charter-school leader Eva Moskowitz, two others Trump considered for the education secretary position, DeVos has kept a relatively low national profile. She has neither worked in public education nor chosen public schools for her own children, who attended private Christian schools.

Earlier this week, Chalkbeat compiled a few things we could reasonably surmise from a DeVos pick:

1. Trump intends to go through with his sweeping voucher plan.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to use federal funds to encourage states to make school choice available to all poor students, including through vouchers that allow families to take public funding to private schools.

That’s exactly what DeVos has zealously worked to make happen on a state-by-state basis for decades. In 2000, she helped get a ballot measure before Michigan voters that would have enshrined a right to vouchers in the state’s Constitution. After the measure failed, she and her husband formed a political action committee to support pro-voucher candidates nationally. Less than a decade later, the group counted a 121-60 win-loss record.

One recipient of its support: former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who created the voucher program that Trump’s vice president-elect, Mike Pence, later expanded. Indeed, DeVos’s vision puts her more in line with Pence, who has supported private school vouchers for both low- and middle-income families, than with Trump, whose plan extends only to poor families.

Trump also vowed to promote publicly funded but privately managed charter schools. But DeVos, whose husband founded an aviation-themed charter school in their hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has expressed reservations about them.

“Charter schools take a while to start up and get operating,” she told Philanthropy Roundtable in 2013. “Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.”

2. School oversight might not be the education department’s top concern.

DeVos and her husband played a role in getting Michigan’s charter school law passed in 1993, and ever since have worked to protect charters from additional regulation. When Michigan lawmakers this year were considering a measure that would have added oversight for charter schools in Detroit, members of the DeVos family poured $1.45 million into legislators’ campaign coffers — an average of $25,000 a day for seven weeks. Oversight was not included in the final legislation.

The DeVos influence is one reason that Michigan’s charter sector is among the least regulated in the country. Roughly 80 percent of charters in Michigan are run by private companies, far more than in any other state. And state authorities have done little up to now to ensure that charter schools are effectively serving students, eliciting concern from current federal authorities.

“There are a lot of schools that are doing poorly and charter authorizers do not seem to be taking the necessary actions to either improve performance or close those underperforming charters,” current U.S. Secretary of Education John King told Chalkbeat about Michigan last month.

3. The Common Core would remain a question mark.

DeVos hasn’t been outspoken about the Common Core, the shared learning standards adopted by most states in recent years. But some of her ties would suggest that she supports the effort to raise and standardize expectations of what students should learn in each grade. She’s on the board of Foundation for Excellence in Education, the group that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush founded to promote school choice and the Common Core.

On the campaign trail, Trump routinely denounced the standards — despite his having no authority to “repeal” them — in statements that won applause from conservatives and liberal parents and teachers alike. But his transition team said the meeting with DeVos “focused on the Common Core mission, and setting higher national standards and promoting the growth of school choice across the nation.”

The statement suggests a possible effort to achieve the standards’ goals without promoting the Common Core brand — exactly the middle path that many states have chosen as they revise the standards, often only lightly, and rename them.

4. The education secretary won’t be a counterweight to Republican officials.

Trump’s consideration of Moskowitz and Rhee, both self-identified Democrats, raised the hopes of some that the federal education department’s leader could counterbalance some more hard-right administration officials. (It also prompted one prominent education lobbying group to issue a statement calling on Democrats not to take a position in Trump’s administration.)

That hope would evaporate if DeVos is the choice, though there is some evidence that she is less extreme than some of the voices gaining prominence in Trump’s administration so far. For one, she did not support Trump even once he became the presumptive Republican nominee, throwing her vote as a party delegate instead behind Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Two years ago, she also publicly called for a Republican leader in Michigan to step down after he made anti-gay and anti-Muslim comments on social media.

But she is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican party leader who has been more conservative on education issues than some of her colleagues. In fact, DeVos stepped down as chair of Michigan’s Republican party in 2000 after the Republican governor declined to support vouchers. (She later took the position back.)

Outside of education, her family gave heavily to efforts to ban same sex-marriage in Michigan.

5. DeVos will have to operate outside of most of the world she has known.

Many of DeVos’ successes have resulted from using her family’s considerable financial resources. DeVos family foundations reported lifetime charitable giving of more than $1.2 billion earlier this year to institutions ranging from hospitals to arts organizations. Political donations — to oppose gay marriage, support vouchers, and sway lawmakers from increasing oversight to charter schools — came on top of that. As education secretary, she would not be able to rely on her personal wealth and approach to get things done.

Instead, she would have to operate within a complicated web of interests and priorities, including with education officials in states that did not support Trump. Her work up to now has been largely within the Republican Party, but she has expressed confidence in the past about being able to cross party lines.

“What we’ve tried to do is engage with Democrats, to make it politically safe for them to do what they know in their heart of hearts is the right thing,” DeVos said in 2013. “Education should be non-partisan.”

budget brokering

Why the Trump administration wants school districts to change their budgets — and how Title I could stand in the way

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

President Trump’s first budget proposal promised $1 billion in new funds for poor students, with a catch: the money would be used to encourage school districts to adopt a new way of funding their schools.

Tucked into the administration’s “skinny budget,” the single sentence on the issue manages to say a great deal about the Trump administration’s priorities — and about how complicated it could be to move them forward.

The budget proposal calls for expanding Title I with money “dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system of student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice.” In calling for student-based budgeting, Trump joins a host of big-city school leaders and education reformers who argue that money should follow each student, no matter where they enroll.

It sounds like a simple idea, but it’s far from how most school districts operate.

Districts traditionally create school budgets based largely on how much it costs to pay the salaries of the adults who work in a building. That can mean schools serving high-needs students, which often have less experienced and lower-paid teachers, get less money than schools with more affluent students.

Under student-based budgeting, each student attending a school brings a certain amount of money, which can grow based on factors like whether the student has a disability or comes from a low-income family. That kind of system appeals to those who want schools with greater challenges to receive more funding. School-choice advocates like it, too, since it rewards schools that attract students and makes inequities in funding between district and charter schools more apparent.

It also forces districts to do the student-by-student calculations that could enable private-school vouchers — making student-based budgeting a gateway policy for voucher advocates such as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Districts such as New York City and Denver have shifted toward student-based budgeting in the last decade, as their systems of school choice have grown more robust. Other districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools, are making the shift now, sometimes painfully. (The approach is also known as fair student funding and weighted student funding.) But districts don’t control the distribution of federal funds, so making the change requires maintaining different budgeting processes.

“There’s a lot of interest in being able to use federal funds in the mix,” said Jennifer Schiess, a policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners.

But there’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on a incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. For one, advertising the new funds as part of Title I, even if ultimately adding them there would be tricky, brought the administration some of its only positive spin on the budget news, which was widely panned as working against poor Americans.

Plus, creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

One pathway to encouraging student-based budgeting already exists in the law. When they rewrote the law last year, lawmakers included a pilot program designed to let 50 school districts change the way they hand out funds, including Title I funds. Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says he expects a DeVos-led education department would push for that program to expand.

And a big question with any of the possible changes, he said, is how poor students fare.

“It will be important to see the details of what is ultimately proposed in order to see if it’s done in such a way to benefit the students that Title I is designed to serve,” West said.

By the numbers

$1.4 billion for school choice, AmeriCorps cuts, and other details from Trump’s first budget proposal

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The road to a $20 billion school choice plan starts with less than 10 percent of that, according to President Trump’s budget plan.

The proposal adds $1.4 billion for school choice efforts, including $168 million for charter schools, $250 million to fund a private school choice program, and an extra $1 billion in Title I funds — which would be used to encourage school districts to shift to “student-based budgeting.” The U.S. Department of Education will eventually “ramp up” that funding, according to the budget proposal.

Those increases would come alongside deep cuts to the education department. Its budget would fall by 13 percent, or $9 billion, with cuts coming from grants that fund professional development for teachers, support for after-school and summer programs, and programs designed to help middle and high school students prepare for college.

Trump’s budget plan would also eliminate the Corporation for National and Community Service, the $1 billion-a-year agency that finances programs run by AmeriCorps — including City Year, College Possible, Playworks, Citizen Schools, and the National College Advising Corps. Those programs now provide support to about 11,000 schools.

What wouldn’t be cut? Funding for students with disabilities, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That’s likely a relief to advocates and lawmakers who worried that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who appeared confused about special-education law during her confirmation hearing, would slash that funding.