devos talks

Here’s what Betsy DeVos had to say in Denver about DACA, student loans and opting out of state tests

PHOTO: Nic Garcia
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes her seat at the Firefly Autism center in Denver.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s first multi-state school tour of her tenure took her Wednesday to a private Denver autism center, where she encouraged schools and parents to work together to better educate students with special needs.

After delivering remarks, DeVos took questions from reporters on issues ranging from President Donald Trump’s decision to end protections for young undocumented immigrants to her decision to reconsider guidance to colleges on sexual assault.

Chalkbeat also asked about the U.S. education department’s pushback on the state’s testing opt-out policy.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the question-and-answer session:

Fox 31: Denver Public Schools has invited you to visit its schools after you criticized them for a lack of choice options in a speech several months ago. Why not visit Denver Public Schools while you’re here? And what would you like to see them do to meet your full approval?

It’s a privilege to be here in Denver. And I expect I will be returning to Denver in the not-too-distant future.

We have started a tour, the “Rethink Schools” tour, in Casper, Wyo., yesterday, where I did visit the Woods Learning Center — a public school in Casper. It was a great visit. It was really meant to highlight innovative ways schools are meeting their students’ needs. It was a school that has been teacher-led for 25 years with personalized learning programs for each of their students. We’re going on from here to Omaha, to Missouri, to Kansas City — both Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., Gary, Ind., and ending in Indianapolis.

We have a whole variety of schools we’re visiting over these four days. The purpose of our tour is really meant to highlight all the many different innovative ways schools are approaching meeting the needs of their kids.

Chalkbeat: You’re an adamant supporter of school choice, of parent choice. So is our State Board of Education. They have championed a policy of not holding schools accountable when parents opt out their students from state tests. But your department has pushed back on that policy, saying it does not comply with federal law. How would you like to see this disagreement resolved?

I’m looking forward to reading all the plans from 30-some states that are due next week, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the innovative ways states are going to address the needs of students in their states.

(Editor’s note: Colorado previously submitted its plan and is rewriting some sections based on the federal education department’s feedback.)

And everywhere I go, I encourage states and local communities — I think decisions are made best at the local source, and local location. And that comes right down to school buildings. I refer back to the one I visited yesterday where the teachers initiated, 25 years ago, a very different approach. And they are empowered to meet the needs of their students there directly. I think a lot more schools can take a lesson from what they’re doing in addressing the needs of their students in really unique ways.

Chalkbeat: In your speech yesterday, you called for far more individualization in education. Is there a place for the traditional school in the United States, or are you thinking they should be completely abolished?

Personalizing a child’s education is a direction many schools are looking to go. There have been lots of pilot programs and efforts around personalized learning. I think schools really need to take a close look at this: to keep students engaged, to make them look forward to their learning. And instead of continuing in a model that was started a century and a half ago, where it was based on time in seats, let’s reverse that and base it on what students are learning and allow them to move at their pace and as quickly as they can.

AP: Is your department issuing any guidance to colleges or universities on what to do with DACA students?

That issue is very much in the forefront. It’s really on Congress’s plate right now. I’ve said this on several occasions before: We’re a nation of laws. We’re also a very compassionate people. And as President Obama said when this was initially implemented, it was a temporary solution. Congress really needs to address this issue. And I believe they will do so. These students are here pursuing their learning and we owe it to them to make sure they know their future is clarified and defined.

AP: Your department is rewriting student loan forgiveness rules. Has the White House contacted you, or weighed in at all on that process?

This is an ongoing process. We have a new federal student aid director who is getting after a lot of issues that really are important to students — not only current students, but past students, as well. Our goal is to simplify both the application process and also the payment process. Repayment plans have been multiple, confusing — and we need to make sure that we put the students first. And students then become the customers in satisfying the repayment of student loans, that we are putting the customer first, and making sure we’re taking care of them from a customer service perspective that hasn’t been done in a really coherent way.

AP: Has there been any consultation with the White House on this? Have they reached out?

We work closely with the White House on every issue with which we’re involved.

Chalkbeat: Coming back to the Endrew F. court case, the Supreme Court stopped short of dictating what a higher standard looked like. Where is your department on issuing any sort of new guidance around that to public schools?

The department wants to be a resource to parents who are looking for further information and clarification. Obviously, the Supreme Court decision is very complicated. And there are a lot of issues in there, and a lot of terminology parents might have questions on. We set up an email address, [email protected], for any parent to contact us directly with questions. We want to be there to not provide guidance but support for and technical support for any of the issues they’re dealing with.

Chalkbeat: What do you want teachers across the country who work day in and day out with students with special needs in public schools to know about your position on the court case and what your department is doing to support them as well?

Teachers are critical in this whole subject and this whole area. Equally important are the parents. And the parents really know their child best. And they know what’s best for their child. And so it’s my encouragement that schools and parents work together to really address the needs of their kids. I think that we have a very clear mandate under federal law to do right by all students that are served, and particularly those who are navigating with disabilities. We can help flourish and help them be everything they are meant to be.

CPR: I’ve been looking into innovation a lot this past month. The truly innovative teachers tell me they need an administration that encourages risk-taking and failure. Principals often are consumed with test scores, and so it’s not happening on that level. For teachers who aren’t innovating, they say it’s the evaluation system. What are your thoughts on that?

I think there are a lot of ways over the last number of decades that we have stifled change and innovation in education. You couldn’t be more right in that the risk-adverse nature (exists).

I’d argue because of a top down approach, both at the federal level and at the state level as well. I think teachers need to be empowered much more. They are most close to their students. And good teachers are going to be able to get the best out of their students.

But if they’re not empowered to do that, it really does put a wet blanket over everything. So I think that change needs to come systemically. And it does need to be oriented around trying new things and engaging students in ways they haven’t been before. There are way too many students who by grades four, five or six are mentally checked out because their curiosity has died because they’ve been in a system that is much more regimented than it is creative and innovative.

We need to be helping them learn critical thinking skills, communication skills, to foster their creativity and to learn how to collaborate. That’s how we work in adult life and that’s how children need to be able to learn through their formative years.

Fox 31: On Title IX, what would you say to survivors who are worried that you want to dismantle everything that has happened during the last few years?

We are focused on doing what’s right for all students: survivors and everyone involved in the horrible case of sexual assaults. And we’re committed to doing what is right for all students.

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.

Coming to Tennessee

Betsy DeVos to address Jeb Bush’s education summit in Nashville

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos is scheduled this month to make her first visit to Tennessee as U.S. secretary of education.

When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush convenes his foundation’s annual education summit in Nashville this month, he will welcome the person he championed to be the nation’s education chief: Betsy DeVos.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education announced this week that DeVos will address its summit on Nov. 30 after Bush opens the gathering of education leaders from across the nation.

The speech will mark DeVos’s first official visit to Tennessee since the Michigan billionaire became President Trump’s secretary of education in February.

It also will reunite two old friends. Bush and DeVos worked closely together to advance school-choice initiatives in Florida, and Politico reported this month that it was Bush who recommended DeVos for the cabinet job to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who led Trump’s White House transition team.

The upcoming addresses by DeVos and Bush are expected to offer a one-two punch on the merits of school choice, even as one of the movement’s primary vehicles — charter schools — have dropped substantially in popularity, according to a recent Education Next poll among both Democrats and Republicans.

The group’s 10th annual summit also will convene in a state that has consistently rejected vouchers as an alternative for students attending low-performing public schools.  Even as money has increasingly flowed into Tennessee to promote vouchers and voucher candidates, including cash from DeVos’s American Federation for Children, the proposal to provide students with state-funded tuition to attend private schools failed again this year to clear the state’s House of Representatives. (The Senate has passed the legislation three times. Lawmakers will take up the matter again in January.)

In announcing DeVos’s address on Thursday, the foundation trumpeted her as a longtime “advocate for children and a voice for parents.”

“As secretary, DeVos continues to advocate for returning control of education to states and localities, giving parents greater power to choose the educational settings that are best for their children, and ensuring that higher education puts students on the path to successful careers,” the announcement says.

DeVos will face a friendly audience of mostly like-minded reformers at the Nashville summit, but the reception she will receive outside is less certain; the city last year voted mostly for Democrat Hillary Clinton, even as the state gave Trump a solid win.

DeVos has been greeted by jeers and protests across America during her recently completed “Rethink School” tour. In Tennessee, anti-DeVos educators and parents congregated outside of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s home offices on the eve of her confirmation vote by the Senate panel he chairs. Both of Tennessee’s senators also were deluged with phone calls before they ultimately cast their votes for Trump’s pick.

Bush launched his foundation in 2009 to promote the education model he led in Florida as governor: expanding private and charter school choice initiatives, holding back third-graders who failed reading tests, and awarding letter grades to schools based largely on test score performance.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Last year’s “ExcelinEd” summit in Washington, D.C., convened more than a thousand educators, policy experts and legislators from 47 states. Speakers included former education chiefs Arne Duncan, William Bennett and Rod Paige and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served as the foundation’s interim leader during Bush’s failed 2016 quest for the White House.

This year’s event likely will include a focus on expanding the role of education technology in schools. Both DeVos and Bush have embraced tech-infused personalized learning and fully virtual schools. Online charter schools, though, have faced a wave of negative research and press, including a recent Chalkbeat investigation into a struggling school in Indiana. One of several sponsors of the summit is K12, the largest operator of virtual charters.

(Disclosure: The Summit’s list of sponsors also includes several supporters of Chalkbeat. You can find our list of major donors here.)