school rules

Yes, Congress scrapped Obama-era education rules. But states say little is changing

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools this week.

Last week’s headlines were dramatic: “Obama education rules are swept aside by Congress.” “Senate dumps Obama rule for holding schools accountable.”

You might think that education officials across the country were scrambling to respond to the changes. But in many of the state education departments that are responsible for turning federal rules into local policies, it’s business as usual.

“Our state plan will not be impacted,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. Her counterpart in New York, MaryEllen Elia, said it won’t require big changes. So did schools chiefs across the country, from Oklahoma to Rhode Island.

That’s because the rolled-back regulations — which included some guidelines for how states should help low-performing schools and deal with districts where many students opt out of state tests — were not actually written into the federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. Instead, the Obama administration issued them last year in an effort to safeguard its education approach.

States are currently locked in a process of translating federal regulations into their own plans. The first deadline to do that is next month, and the expectation that a new administration would reconsider the Obama-era regulations gave state officials little reason to take the now-rolled-back rules into account.

“We have intentionally drafted our ESSA plan in alignment with the language in the statute itself, not with the language of the regulation,” McQueen said.

“We’ve been directed to focus on the statute part of ESSA, and not the rule-making process,” said Indiana’s schools chief, Jennifer McCormick. “With community and stakeholder input, we will craft our accountability rules in relation to the ESSA statute section we’ve been directed to follow.”

A new guidebook from the U.S. Education Department out this week offers a clearer picture of what’s changing — and at the top of the list is a requirement for states to get input from community members. Now, states don’t have to get feedback, though they can if they want to.

“Eliminating the requirement for public input is the perfect illustration of the Trump administration’s attempt to shutter transparency and remove the public from policy making,” said Jared Polis, the lead Democrat on the House’s Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education subcommittee. “Fortunately, states like Colorado have already undergone an extensive stakeholder engagement process to include diverse points of view in their state plan.”

States are unlikely to scrap efforts to solicit public feedback. Many have already concluded engagement meetings — Colorado held more than 180 — or already have them on the calendar. New York, for example, launches a round of meetings next week.

Even though the rule change isn’t making waves at state education departments, advocates are still paying close attention to what it might augur for the Trump administration’s education agenda. So far, President Trump has rolled back protections for transgender students and asked Congress to craft a bill to expand school choice — with more details expected in his first budget proposal this week.

Advocates see the ESSA rule reversal as part of a broader shift against holding states accountable for reaching all students.

“I am highly disappointed that Congress has weakened legislation by removing rules to protect marginalized students,” Los Angeles teacher Misti Kemmer said in a statement issued by Educators 4 Excellence, a teacher advocacy group. “I sincerely hope that state leaders will remember our traditionally underserved students as we move forward with state ESSA plans.”

devos on denver

Weeks after DeVos praises school choice efforts in Denver, she slams the city as offering ‘accessibility without choices’

Earlier this month, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was praising Denver’s efforts to support school choice. Not today.

Speaking at the Brookings Institution Wednesday, she called out Denver as an example of a district that appears to be choice-friendly — but actually lacks sufficient options for families.

A new Brookings report gave the city the top score for school choice, citing the unified application process that allows families to consider charter and district-run schools at the same time.

But DeVos implied that without vouchers to pay for private schools (something Colorado’s state Supreme Court has twice ruled unconstitutional) and a sufficient supply of charter schools, Denver’s application process amounts to an optical illusion.

“The benefits of making choices accessible are canceled out when you don’t have a full menu of options,” she said, pointing to New Orleans as a better example of the choice ecosystem she’d like to see. “Choice without accessibility doesn’t matter. Just like accessibility without choices doesn’t matter. Neither scenario ultimately benefits students.”

The harsh criticism comes just weeks after DeVos publicly praised Denver’s efforts to solve a thorny challenge complicating school choice across the country: transportation. In a speech to the Council of Great City Schools, a group of leaders and school board members of America’s large school districts, she praised the “Success Express” that shuttles students in a handful of neighborhoods to both charter and district schools. But transportation challenges continue to prevent families from taking advantage of the options that do exist.

Denver Public Schools’ Superintendent Tom Boasberg released the following statement responding to DeVos’s comments:

“We respectfully disagree with Secretary DeVos. We do not support private school vouchers. We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter.”

“A core principle in Denver and one of the main reasons we rank No. 1 nationally in school choice is that we ensure equitable systems of enrollment among district-run and charter schools, where all schools play by the same enrollment rules and all schools are subject to the same rigorous accountability system. We do not support choice without accountability.”

Here are DeVos’s full comments about Denver’s top school choice ranking in the Brookings report:

“I am hopeful this report helps lights a fire under [low-scoring cities] to better serve students. And while we may be tempted to emulate cities with a higher grade, I would urge a careful look.

The two highest-scoring districts, Denver and New Orleans, both receive As. But they arrive there in very different ways. New Orleans provides a large number of choices to parents. All of its public schools are charters, there is a good supply of affordable private schools, and the state provides vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools if they choose. Combined with its easy-to-use common application, New Orleans’ sophisticated matching system maximizes parental preference and school assignment.

Meanwhile, Denver scored well because of the single application process for both charter and traditional public schools, as well as a website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools. But the simple process masks the limited choices there.”

devos on divides

Another Indianapolis school gets Betsy DeVos’s seal of approval, this time for being diverse

School choice can produce school diversity, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Wednesday — citing an Indianapolis private school as evidence.

At a Brookings Institution event about choice in Washington, D.C., leading school integration advocate Richard Kahlenberg, asked DeVos for her take on initiatives that aim to increase racial and socioeconomic diversity.

“I’m wondering if you support or oppose policies that would structure choice in a way to promote socioeconomic and racial diversity,” he asked. “For example, I’ve worked with the Charlotte public schools recently. And they have a policy where, with their magnet schools, they want to try to get a nice healthy mix of students from different backgrounds.”

DeVos responded positively, though without specifics — and pivoted quickly to a place and topic closer to her experience: private schools in Indiana.

“I clearly think that having diversity, racial and socioeconomic measure of diversity, is a real benefit in schools,” she said. “I think about a school I visited in Indianapolis, The Oaks school. The mission is to really have a wide range of diversity school economically, racially. And it’s a successful school model.”

DeVos was referring to The Oaks Academy, a three-campus private school that is more diverse than most public schools in the surrounding district. Half of its students use vouchers from the state to pay their tuition, in an arrangement that DeVos lobbied to expand across the country before becoming education secretary.

Chalkbeat visited The Oaks last year and found unusual diversity in a city where schools remain quite segregated — and a motivation that could never fuel public school choice programs.

Not every school can precisely emulate The Oaks, since its leaders, and many parents, believe the school is defined by its Christian values. But its remarkable capacity to attract diverse families and create a community where students feel at ease and form friendships across often intractable social divides offers insight for schools across a still-divided city.

The school’s three campuses are set in low-income, heavily black, urban neighborhoods. But the aim of the school has always been to serve not only the children of those neighborhoods but also families that had migrated to the suburbs, said Andrew Hart, CEO of The Oaks schools.

“The origin of the idea of The Oaks was — ‘Let’s start a school that provides an education of such quality that families will pull their kids up from the finest, most elite private or suburban schools,’” said Hart, who started volunteering at the school in its early years. “But also let’s actively serve and reach out to neighborhood children.”

DeVos also said she thought studies have shown that choice increases school diversity. There isn’t much evidence for that, and some research to suggest that choice can magnify segregation.

What research, including Kahlenberg’s, is clear about is that poor children perform significantly better when they attend schools that are largely middle class — schools with advantages such as well-prepared peers, engaged parents and high expectations from teachers.