first semester

Betsy DeVos’s first week at the U.S. Education Department: What you need to know

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Howard University.

After a bruising confirmation fight, Betsy DeVos has taken the helm at the U.S. Department of Education.

As she introduces herself to the education world, we’re here to help you keep up. Here’s what you should know about the protests, gaffes, and policy shifts that have marked her first few days on the job.

She’s having trouble getting into schools. A main critique of DeVos was that she’s never spent time in public schools before, and some of her sharpest critics have spent the week trying to make sure that stays the case. Protesters briefly blocked her from entering a Washington, D.C., school her first day on the job, and San Diego’s school board also rescinded an invitation for her to visit local schools amid pressure from the local teachers union.

She hit back in a speech on Wednesday. “The protesters’ behavior, I think, is a reflection on the way some seek to treat our education system today – by keeping kids in and new thinking out,” she said.

She’s still playing it safe on some issues. The education department had indicated that DeVos would talk about the achievement gap in that speech. She didn’t.

But she’s making moves on some big policy issues. Before becoming education secretary, DeVos had engaged with only a narrow set of policy issues, mostly around school choice. Now she has to tackle many more, and she has started to do so. Last week, she reached out to state education officials to let them know that she plans to stay the course on the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives more control over education policy to states. She also said she would look to cut “unnecessary” programs from the department, in a bit of traditional Republican rhetoric.

An editorial cartoon likened her to six-year-old Ruby Bridges entering an all-white school amid racist protests. The comparison was condemned as both offensive and inaccurate.

She embarrassed herself online. The likelihood of DeVos typing the education department’s tweets herself is almost zero. But the account’s misspelling of the name of black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois — followed by “our deepest apologizes” — didn’t do much for her image as someone out of touch with schools and the kids of color that she is supposed to serve.

She’s inspired some people to jump into public service themselves. “Since Betsy DeVos’ confirmation, we’ve had a flood of people come and say specifically, ‘I want to run for school board to protect the schools in my hometown,’” Amanda Litman, co-founder of the political action committee Run for Something, told NPR.

Meanwhile, one of her predecessors has joined the #resistance. Arne Duncan, who served as education secretary for seven years under President Obama, has made his concern about President Trump clear with a steady stream of retweets — and messages of his own.

Duncan also weighed in on the DeVos school protesters, tweeting, “Agree or disagree w @BetsyDeVos on any issue, but let’s all agree she really needs to be in public schools. Please let her in.”

Speaking of Twitter, she got a new account. She’s now @BetsyDeVosED.

She’s still attracting interest far beyond the usual education audience. One stunning thing about DeVos is that her nomination galvanized interest and opposition from a wide constituency — an unusual phenomenon for an education department nominee. That hasn’t changed now that she’s in office. A website for millennial women took a look at the fashion designer who has dressed DeVos, and a home tour posted on a design site included a detour into the homeowner’s questions about DeVos’s leadership.

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)