Takeaways

What we learned (and didn’t) about Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing

Betsy DeVos answers questions during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next secretary of education spent more than three hours before the nation Tuesday night trying to recast herself as “mainstream.”

After weeks of skewering criticism from public school advocates who have painted her as an extremist who opposes public education, Betsy DeVos — the billionaire philanthropist and school-choice advocate — used her Senate confirmation hearing to mention her mother’s history as a public school teacher. She repeatedly stressed that her support for policies such as private-school vouchers is about giving parents control over their children’s education. And she pushed back against critics who suggested that her support of free-market policies has allowed failing charter schools to proliferate in her home state of Michigan.

She also stumbled on some key issues — and raised the prospect that some America’s children need protection from grizzly bears.

Here’s a quick roundup of what else we learned, and didn’t, about DeVos’s views on key education issues:

On school vouchers: DeVos has long lobbied for states to allow parents to use public funds to pay private school tuition. As secretary, she said, she would encourage states to create voucher programs — but not try to impose them. “I would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation,” she said. She said she would “absolutely” support a state that wanted to use federal education dollars to give students $2,100 scholarships for tuition in non-public schools.

One reason vouchers are controversial is that some versions of the policy allow public education dollars to go to religious or private schools that can discriminate in admissions or require students to sign away rights to special-education services. DeVos didn’t say whether she thinks schools that receive vouchers should be required to serve all students.

Her biggest stumble of the day came when Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine asked whether schools that get federal funding should have to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires schools to address students’ special needs. She responded, “I think that’s a matter best left to the states.” In a follow-up, when asked if she was aware that the IDEA was a federal law that she would need to enforce as education secretary, she admitted that she may have been confused and said federal laws must be followed.

On science: Some critics have questioned DeVos’s commitment to fact-based science education because of her past support for Republicans who have denied that climate change exists and who voted for bills that bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. DeVos didn’t address her position on climate change, but she insisted that she supports science in schools. “I support the teaching of great science,” she said.

On guns (and bears) in schools: DeVos deflected a question from Connecticut Sen. Christopher Murphy about whether guns should be allowed in or around public schools. “I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” she answered. When Murphy, whose state saw the worst school shooting in U.S. history at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown in 2012, expressed incredulity, DeVos noted a school in Wyoming that she heard about from Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi that is protected by a grizzly bear fence. “I will refer back to Sen. Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming,” she said. “I think probably there, I would imagine, that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

On Detroit: Much of the criticism of DeVos has focused on her influence on schools in Michigan, where she has advocated for the dismantling of the Detroit school district and against new regulations for the state’s charter schools. After Democratic senators confronted her with a long list of unfavorable statistics about the quality of both district and charter schools in Detroit, DeVos insisted that charter schools in Detroit are doing well, especially given the high percentage of Detroit children who live in poverty. “Actually, I believe that there’s a lot that has gone right in Detroit and in Michigan with regard to charter schools,” she said, citing a study that found Detroit charter school students on average do slightly better on state exams than their district school peers. (But they all struggle: Just 10 of Detroit’s 200 district and charter schools had test scores in the top half across Michigan.)

She called suggestions that policies she’s promoted have shielded charter schools from consequences from poor performance “false news,” since 122 charter schools across the state have been shut down for poor performance. Still, the state has no restrictions on how many charter schools can open, and groups with long records of allowing low-performing charter schools to stay open are not prevented from opening new ones.

On how student progress should be measured: What should matter more, that a third-grader who arrived at school at a first-grade reading level is now at second-grade level, or that the student failed the third-grade test? That question has been at the core of the debate over how schools are evaluated in recent years. But when Minnesota Sen. Al Franken put the question to her, DeVos didn’t have a quick answer, stumbling a bit over the definitions of growth and proficiency. (Franken didn’t give her a chance to follow up.)

On her wealth and conflicts: Like many of Trump’s other wealthy Cabinet nominees (and Trump himself), DeVos has faced questions over conflicts of interest she could face in office. DeVos said she intends to take a salary of $1, and to forgo a tax loophole that can help wealthy nominees save money. “I will not be conflicted, period. I commit that to you all,” she said. But some pieces of information are still missing, because the Office of Government Ethics has not completed DeVos’s ethics agreement.

DeVos did offer one new tidbit: that she was listed as a board member of her mother’s foundation on federal tax forms because of “a clerical error.” The foundation gave to Focus on the Family, which has supported gay conversion therapy. DeVos said she doesn’t support that work.

On the Office of Civil Rights: Under Obama, the Education Department stepped up enforcement of civil rights policies and issued guidance on issues affecting transgender students. Some civil rights groups are concerned the Trump administration will scale back the Office of Civil Rights. Those concerns increased after Politico 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. A Lankford aide said he and DeVos had talked of “reining in” that office. In Tuesday’s hearings, DeVos said she had not used those words.

On violence against women: Like attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, DeVos was asked whether touching women without their consent — as Trump bragged about doing in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape released last fall — is sexual assault. And like Sessions, she said yes.

On other education policy issues: What does DeVos think about academic standards, teacher evaluations, how to improve struggling schools, segregation — the issues that most affect the way students and teachers across the country experience school on a daily basis? We still don’t know, because DeVos wasn’t asked about them.

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.