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Worried Betsy DeVos could ‘destroy’ public education? Here’s what you should know

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Betsy DeVos earned more opposition than any of President Trump’s cabinet picks — and any nominee for education secretary in history.

During that historically divisive process, her critics charged that DeVos wanted to “destroy” public education. Is that charge legitimate or overblown? Now that DeVos has been confirmed, here’s what you should read to start getting a handle on the possibilities.

Fear: She’s going to promote private, religious schools.

DeVos has been among the most powerful advocates of vouchers, which which allow students to use public funds to pay for tuition at private schools, and she has also said her motivation to improve education relates to her desire to “advance God’s kingdom.”

Her opponents argue that vouchers drain support from the public schools that serve the vast majority of the nation’s students, including those students with the highest needs, and that DeVos’s approach skirts too closely to the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. They fear DeVos could end public education by diverting all taxpayer dollars to private schools, including religious schools.

DeVos has said she won’t impose voucher programs — and she can’t, because such programs are up to states to create. Willing state legislatures could seize the moment to grow voucher programs. But a more sweeping impact could come from a policy that DeVos’s lobbying group promoted — a tax-credit program that allows families to donate to private school scholarship funds for their children to use. That approach is already in place in 17 states.

NPR explains why this approach is likely to appeal to DeVos, and how it could work:

It unites three broad concepts that DeVos is friendly toward: 1) Privatization 2) religious education and 3) a hands-off approach to accountability for private schools. …

The tax-credit structure is especially significant when considering what could happen under DeVos in the Trump administration, because it could be a way to promote school choice on a federal level without writing big checks. “There isn’t that much money that is fungible from the federal education budget,” points out Samuel Abrams, an expert in education policy at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Broad support for tuition tax-credits would open up a new frontier in education policy-making, according to Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which supports vouchers. Someone would have to decide whether private schools that receive vouchers are held accountable for student performance and how poor students must be to qualify.

“Is it the feds? Is it the states?” Petrilli said. “It’s all kind of up for grabs.”

Fear: She’s going to end the federal education department’s support for civil rights.

Under Obama, the Education Department stepped up enforcement of civil rights policies and issued guidance on issues affecting transgender students. Civil rights groups are concerned the Trump administration will scale back the Office of Civil Rights, especially given Trump’s apparently limited appetite for protecting or prioritizing marginalized groups.

The Atlantic convened several advocates with an eye on the office to understand what its future could look like under Trump and DeVos. While they had varying opinions about the role of the office under Obama, there was consensus that the Office of Civil Rights will be what DeVos makes of it. Said a leading advocate for transgender students, whom the Obama administration moved to safeguard:

OCR’s mission will not change. How effective it is in carrying out that mission will depend in large part on the resources provided by Congress and the leadership provided by the president and his appointees.

Fear: She’s going to change or dismantle the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

IDEA is the bedrock federal law that guarantees disabled students access to an appropriate public education. So when DeVos said during her confirmation hearing that its enforcement should be left up to states — a claim that she said was made out of confusion — advocates worried that she might not be committed to protecting the rights of students with disabilities.

Since then, DeVos has tried to tamp down the perception that her lack of knowledge about the law means she doesn’t support it. And more important, ignoring the law would invite immediate lawsuits, and altering it would require congressional action by lawmakers whose constituencies all include families of students with disabilities.

The biggest possibility for change: DeVos-supported programs could allow more students to opt out of the protections that IDEA offers. She’s a fan of state voucher programs directed at students with disabilities, which can require parents to waive their children’s rights under that law.

One mother, Bernadette Kerrigan, laid out the trade-off of sending her child to private school using one such voucher in Education Week:

Kerrigan also had to come up with another $18,000 that year to cover tuition costs that the $5,000 part-year voucher did not meet.

Kerrigan said she is grateful for the money. Emma, who will start 6th grade in the fall, is thriving at her new school. The family expects to receive a larger voucher in future years, but it will still cover only a fraction of the school’s $23,000 tuition.

But giving up the civil rights afforded to public school students under the special education law is a sacrifice, Kerrigan said.

Fear: She’s going to gut the federal funding system for schools serving poor students.

The idea that poor students cost more to educate, and thus should be entitled to additional funding, has been enshrined in federal law for more than half a century, and “Title I” funds pump more than $14 billion a year into the nation’s schools. Until now, the funds have always flowed to schools, under the premise that schools with many poor students have steeper challenges than schools with few poor students.

But DeVos told Sen. Al Franken that she would prefer a system that assigns the funds to students, not schools. Vox’s explainer on Trump’s school choice proposal summarizes the policy’s appeal to Republicans:

Republicans have long wanted to turn this program into a voucher. Instead of money going to schools based on the composition of their student body, Title I would “follow the child.” Every disadvantaged student a school enrolled would come with a small pile of federal cash to help pay for his or her education. And schools would get the money whether they were public, private, or charter.

This idea, known as “Title I portability” in education circles, is by now a mainstream Republican policy proposal. Ronald Reagan called for turning Title I into vouchers during his presidency. Mitt Romney wanted to turn both Title I and special education funding into vouchers during his 2012 presidential run. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, introduced a budget amendment to turn Title I into a voucher that could be used at private, public, or charter schools in 2013.

Congress would have to approve changes to Title I rules, and local school advocates are unlikely to get behind portability in large numbers. But if there were ever a moment for such a change to be possible, it’s now.

Dylan Peers McCoy and Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

Funding fight

In Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Colorado’s teachers union finds a useful face for the opposition

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

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is working to fuel opposition to a bill that would boost charter school funding by associating it with U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

The union on its Facebook page published an image of DeVos and branded Senate Bill 61 as a “Betsy DeVos-Style Privatization Bill.”

The bill, which has bipartisan sponsors in both chambers, would require school districts to equally share money from local tax increases with charter schools. It was recently approved by the state Senate — but not without a fierce fight from a bloc of lawmakers who taught in district-run public schools.

The union isn’t the only group using DeVos’s image to oppose legislation making its way through the statehouse. A new political nonprofit, Colorado Children Before Profits, launched its own website linking DeVos and President Donald Trump to the charter school funding bill, and two other bills that would change the way Colorado funds schools.

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has long supported charter schools and vouchers for private schools, became an unexpected political lightning rod early in Trump’s administration.

PHOTO: CEA/Facebook
The Colorado Education Association posted this image to its Facebook page earlier in March.

In Colorado, the union and a group of parents protested outside U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s downtown Denver office, urging him to oppose her confirmation. Gardner ultimately voted to confirm DeVos.

DeVos has no formal role in the push for Senate Bill 61, which soon will be considered by the state House of Representatives.
But “there’s a natural tie,” argues Kerrie Dallman, CEA’s president.

“Betsy DeVos has long been connected to the movement to radically expand charter schools, as well as grow education vouchers and tax credits,” Dallman said. “We’re concerned because there is so little accountability in that movement, and a lack of transparency.”

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform organization, said the union’s use of DeVos is “typical D.C.-style politics.”

“The teachers union’s latest propaganda campaign is shameful,” Ragland said in a statement. “They are spreading demonstrably false information in an attempt to politicize an issue that has had longtime bipartisan support in Colorado. Senate Bill 61 is a uniquely Colorado solution, supported by local leaders in both parties.”

in her own words

Rave reviews: Here are the states, schools, and programs that have gotten Betsy DeVos’s seal of approval

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Carderock Springs Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos might not have ever worked in a school system or state education department, but she’s been getting up to speed fast on what they’ve been doing.

And unlike her boss, who issues insults so freely that people track his targets, DeVos talks a lot about the things she likes. In her speeches, she’s been citing program after program that she supports, often with remarkable specificity. Together, they offer a look at what issues — school choice! — and what parts of the country she is focused on first.

We’ll be keeping track of the K-12 initiatives that get a public DeVos seal of approval here. Did we miss something? Let us know.

 CALIFORNIA’s support for career and technical education:

California has been forward-leaning in implementing career and technical education programs that deliver results: The state now offers more than 13,000 courses that meet the admissions requirements of the University of California system.

California has also invested in Linked Learning programs across the state that integrate industry-based learning at the college-prep level, allowing students to acquire the skills needed to begin a high-potential career right after graduation. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

CLEVELAND’s technology training:

Another example is Cleveland’s “Project Lead the Way.” Project Lead the Way connects students with engineering businesses and organizations in the community. Children learn relevant subjects such as coding, robotics, and in some cases, 3D printing. This type of hands-on experience encourages students to engage in ways the traditional classroom often does not, and it introduces them to skills and subject-areas with high-potential futures. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

DENVER’s student transportation efforts (more from Chalkbeat here):

In Denver, represented today by Happy Haynes, the district is currently providing transportation to children from underserved areas to schools in other regions of the city. This transportation is key in order to provide students with access to quality options. The “Success Express,” as it’s called, is a great example of how LEAs are leveraging federal, state and local funds to best serve children. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

FLORIDA’s dual-enrollment programs:

I think dual-enrollment is a great option for high schoolers that want to earn college credit and get a jump on their college, their post-high school studies. And Valencia [College in Orlando] is clearly addressing that need in a meaningful and major way. It’s a model that can be replicated in many other communities. (March 24 interview with Orlando’s WFTV)

FLORIDA’s tax credit scholarship program:

One young lady, Denisha Merriweather, failed the third grade twice at her assigned traditional school in Florida. Denisha was on the path to becoming another statistic. She appeared destined to follow in the footsteps of her brother and mother, who both dropped out of high school.

But Denisha’s godmother intervened, and, because of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, Denisha was able to attend a school that better met her needs.

Now Denisha is not only the first in her family to graduate from high school, but she also graduated from college and, this May, she will receive her master’s degree in social work. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

FLORIDA’s St. Andrew Catholic School:

INDIANAPOLIS’s “innovation schools” initiative (more from Chalkbeat here):

These schools are under the governance of the Indianapolis Public Schools district, but they are freed up to operate independently and thus better attune themselves to the unique needs of their students.

I want to bring School 15 to your attention as an example of new thinking. School 15 has struggled for years with low-test scores, and the state gave it an “F” in 2016.  But in recent months, parents and teachers in Indianapolis have come together to propose School 15 become a “neighborhood-run” school under the “innovation schools” program.

This isn’t a school run by an outside, third-party operator – this is a school where parents are in direct control. The community takes ownership of developing the school’s structure, staffing and performance. (March 13, speaking to the Council of Great City Schools)

MICHIGAN’s program to help people with disabilities join the workforce:

In my home state of Michigan, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley joined forces with state Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein to level the playing field for a group that’s consistently underrepresented in the overall workforce: people with disabilities.

The initiative, MI Hidden Talent, provides training and resources to help businesses adopt inclusive hiring practices. (March 15 speech to the National Lieutenant Governors Association)

MICHIGAN’s The Potter’s House private school:

After visiting The Potter’s House, a small private school in my hometown that provides scholarships to low-income, mostly minority students, I saw the struggle of so many families who were just trying to access the same opportunities and choices for their children that my husband and I had for ours. Schools like The Potter’s House gave kids the chance to succeed and thrive, but for every student who got the chance to attend The Potter’s House, I knew there were others stuck in schools not meeting their needs. (March 13 speech to the Council of the Great City Schools, and a number of other mentions)

MICHIGAN’s City High Middle School:

In my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, City High Middle School is nationally recognized and is ranked the third-best school in the state. Forty-five percent are minority students, and 98 percent of all students are enrolled in IB programs.

In conversations with parents and students who are part of City High, it’s clear how much they appreciate and value the opportunity that school provides. (Feb. 15, speaking to Magnet Schools of America national conference)

MILWAUKEE’s school choice program:

The longest-running program in the country, Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program, is located in Lt. Gov. Kleefisch’s state of Wisconsin.

That program started in 1990, and is now one of four private choice programs in Wisconsin, serving more than 33,000 students in that state. If you add to that the population attending the state’s public charter schools, more than 76,000 students in Wisconsin are able to attend a school of their parents’ choosing.

One of these schools is St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee, which serves almost exclusively students from low-income families.

One of those students, Jeffrey, described his education experience prior to attending St. Marcus as “setting him up to fail.” His traditional schools simply didn’t meet his academic needs.

When he enrolled at St. Marcus everything changed for him.

Jeffrey’s teachers took special interest in him, and today he’s a college graduate and works as an architectural designer. And he credits his success to the support of his family and his teachers at St. Marcus. (March 15, speaking to the National Lieutenant Governors Association)

NEVADA’s turnaround school district:

One of those 25 programs is the Nevada Achievement School District, which was launched this year. The state identified the schools that were persistently underperforming, and has instructed the achievement school district to provide the families attending those schools with up to six high-quality, local options.

This is but the first step in helping more than 57,000 children attending Nevada’s underperforming schools, but it is a step in the right direction. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)

WASHINGTON state’s support for virtual schools:

Another student I met, Sandeep Thomas, grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India with absent and neglectful parents. Sandeep was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey but continued to suffer from the experiences of his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington state, where Sandeep was able to join a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the comfort of his own home and develop at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, and also having earned 39 hours of college credit. Today, he’s working in the finance industry and is a public advocate for increased school options that allow students like him a chance to succeed. (March 20, in a talk to the National Association of State Boards of Education)