Watch list

What we’ll be listening for at the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education pick

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
Betsy

If Sen. Elizabeth Warren keeps her promises, Betsy DeVos is in for a challenging confirmation hearing next week.

DeVos, who President-elect Donald Trump has chosen to run the U.S. Department of Education, will likely face questions from Democrats about her advocacy for school vouchers and her long history of philanthropic and political giving during the hearing, which has been postponed until Jan. 17.

With a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, Cabinet picks are expected to be confirmed without much trouble. But the hearing will be the first real chance for Americans to learn about the Michigan philanthropist’s vision for their schools.

Here’s what we’ll be listening for:

How she wants to improve education for students in traditional public schools, and whose job she thinks that is.

DeVos has a strong track record of lobbying for charter schools and vouchers that allow families to use public funding to pay private school tuition. But she’s stayed mum on many issues relevant to students attending traditional public schools.

How often should students take standardized tests? What does DeVos think those test scores should be used for? Should federal officials continue to push for schools to suspend fewer students, or for states to improve education for English language learners? The U.S. Department of Education has weighed in on all of these questions over time, so senators might want to know how DeVos would approach them.

The future she envisions for the department she’s been chosen to lead.

The broad, bipartisan consensus about improving education that has held for years is is falling apart, creating an opening for some Republicans who don’t support the very existence of a federal education department. They have begun to outline a legal, practical roadmap for dismantling it. Would DeVos support any of those moves?

How a big voucher plan might work, and her plans for the education budget.

Trump has promised a $20 billion school choice plan for students from poor families, with the money coming from a combination of federal and state sources. Beyond that, he hasn’t offered many details.

If that is her vision, too, would she use money from other programs, like Title I funds meant for educating poor students, to do it? Or should it work like Indiana’s voucher program, which she has influenced? That state’s program, the biggest in the nation, increasingly serves students from middle-class families and those who never attended public school.

Concerns about her many potential conflicts of interest.

As philanthropists, DeVos and her husband have given away more than a billion dollars. Her education policy political action committee has handed out even more. She has stepped down from the PAC’s leadership and provided substantial information about her finances and campaign contributions, but her official ethics review is ongoing. Senators could reasonably ask whether those longstanding ties can so easily be severed, and whether any of them could continue to influence her judgment. (On the other hand, she’s also given to many of them.)

Whether she plans to make changes at the Office of Civil Rights.

The Obama administration bulked up this office within the federal education department. Some civil rights groups are concerned the Trump administration will scale it back, and Politico recently reported that DeVos had spoken about the office with Republican Sen. James Lankford, who is skeptical about its work to ensure transgender students have certain protections in schools.

Her reflections on Detroit and Michigan schools, where she has wielded heavy influence.

DeVos and her PAC have advocated for the dismantling of Michigan’s largest school district. Does she believe that the country in general would be better off with a system of disconnected charter schools?

She’s also worked to protect the state’s charter schools from additional regulation. Critics — including current U.S. Education Secretary John King — say the lack of enforced quality standards for Michigan charter schools hurts students. Does she acknowledge an issue?

How she’ll fill in the gaps in her education CV.

DeVos hasn’t worked in a school, and she didn’t attend or send her children to public schools, either. Senators, Warren included, have promised to ask why she thinks she’s right for the job.

This story has been updated to reflect the new date for DeVos’ confirmation hearing.

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.