The confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the federal education department made Betsy DeVos the new face of American education policy.
But the most important upcoming decisions about schools won’t come from the Trump administration, and they won’t be made by DeVos, who faces a confirmation vote on Jan. 31. They’ll happen a lot closer to home, in the state legislatures that have long been the main drivers of education policy.
U.S. lawmakers already empowered states to control more of their school policies through the federal education law passed last year. And DeVos said she would stay the course, emphasizing that states should decide whether to take up even her favorite education policy, school vouchers.
Here’s where states still have the most influence, even if DeVos might have some sway.
DeVos has made a career out of pushing school choice legislation, especially laws that allow public money be used toward tuition at private or religious schools. But DeVos’s appointment doesn’t mean vouchers would sweep the nation — instead, state legislatures would have to create voucher programs.
That’s within the realm of possibility in some states, such as Tennessee, where voucher legislation has come close to passing in recent years. After spending the better part of a decade wrestling over the issue, Tennessee lawmakers who support vouchers are optimistic that they might finally push through a program for poor students this year. (DeVos has played a role in currying support through her foundation and advocacy group, American Federation for Children.)
But some states, like New York, would need more than money to adopt vouchers. They’d need a total change in political winds, and possibly even a change in the state constitution, to allow public money to be spent on religiously affiliated schools. Similarly, state supreme court decisions in Colorado make vouchers only a distant possibility.
How schools are judged
No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002 under President George W. Bush, created uniformity in the way states evaluated whether schools and school districts were doing their jobs. Under President Obama, states were allowed waivers that freed them up, although some requirements — like requiring test data to be used in teacher evaluations — remained in place.
The new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, is supposed to go even farther. That means the country will have a quilt of different systems, as states arrive at different answers for what school quality means and how it should be measured.
So, for example, while ESSA requires states to report English language learners’ test scores, some states will wait to count their scores until they’ve been in the country for a few years, and others will start right away.
DeVos’ office would have the final say on these plans, but she’s not expected to be heavy-handed. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee and co-sponsored ESSA, said he is optimistic that she won’t interfere with states’ visions.
“As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it … restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities,” Alexander said in November.
DeVos has also been a proponent of charter schools. But the gatekeepers for charter schools operate at the state, or even local, level.
Massachusetts voters declined to lift a cap on charter schools when they voted down a ballot initiative in November. And state lawmakers in Colorado and New York are gearing up for perennial battles over state charter school funding, over which they — not the U.S. Department of Education — have the final say. Seven states still don’t allow charter schools at all.
States also take different approaches to how their charter sectors are regulated.
In DeVos’s home state of Michigan, about 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit companies. But for-profit charters only represent 13 percent of charter schools nationwide, in part because many other states, including Tennessee, New York, and Colorado, prohibit them.
And while DeVos aggressively opposed measures to increase oversight of Detroit’s charter schools, even ones with abysmal test scores, other states have tighter regulations on when charter schools must close.
ESSA does include grants for “high quality charter schools,” and stipulates that the Secretary of Education must prioritize giving them to states that do things like craft an ambitious plan for their charter sector and provide equitable funding for those schools. Some states might be tempted to pass laws to conform to DeVos’s ideas about what ambitious plans and equitable funding looks like. But final decisions about charter schools will still be made at a more local level.
States all face one common challenge: how to allocate scarce resources for public education.
Here, the next U.S. Secretary of Education might play a bigger role for some states than others. While federal funds only account for about 9 percent of the country’s total education spending, some states rely on it much more than others. Title I spending alone accounted for 4.6 percent of total education spending in North Carolina last year, and 4.3 percent in Mississippi, meaning that any cuts or changes to the federal pool of money devoted to poor students could have big ripple effects in those states.
Competitive grant programs, like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top or the charter school grants, can influence state policy, too. That’s what happened in Tennessee, which rushed to revamp its teacher evaluation system and implement a state-run school turnaround district in 2010 in order to win the money.
But federal grants come with end dates, and budgets remain the purview of states and local governments. Courts have consistently decided that it’s up to states to decide what constitutes adequate and equitable funding — and that means school resources will continue to vary widely across the country.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Senate vote on DeVos’ confirmation has been rescheduled.