devos watch

DeVos calls America still ‘a nation at risk,’ cheers GOP tax plan

PHOTO: ExcelinEd
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks Thursday to the National Summit on Education Reform meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. About 1,100 education leaders from 40 states attended the two-day summit.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hearkened back Thursday to the landmark Reagan-era report indicting America’s public schools and declared that not much has changed. Today’s education system is still putting the nation at risk, she charged.

Speaking in Nashville at the National Summit on Education Reform, she rallied education leaders to expand “school choice,” took swipes at teachers unions and Democrats, and spoke up for her boss’s campaign to overhaul the nation’s tax structure.

DeVos’s 20-minute address drew a standing ovation from most of the 1,100 people attending the 10th annual summit hosted by her friend Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida who founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, of which DeVos once served on the board.

She used the occasion to encourage influencers — from lawmakers to faith leaders — to fight for options that give choices to parents, flexibility to teachers, and personalized attention to students.

And borrowing a quote from Mark Twain, she assured the friendly audience that she will lead the charge from her perch at the U.S. Department of Education.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!” said DeVos, the subject of a viral report in Salon that she was expected to resign soon. “I’m not going anywhere! In fact, I’m just getting started!”

As the nub of her speech, DeVos referred to “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report released under then-Secretary of Education Terrell Bell that, in many ways, was the impetus for the modern education reform movement. The report decried “a rising tide of mediocrity” in public education and said America’s schools were failing to prepare students for a competitive workforce.

“We are a nation still at risk. We are a nation at greater risk,” said DeVos, citing the middle-of-the-pack performance of U.S. students in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. When it comes to student achievement, America is being outpaced by nations like China, Germany, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, she said.

“This is unacceptable. This is inexcusable. And this is truly un-American. We can — we must — do better,” DeVos said.

With the Republican tax plan hurtling toward a vote in Congress, DeVos praised it as the right change at the right time, despite concerns that the current proposals could constrain the ability of state and local governments to levy their own taxes, which could affect spending on schools.

“Our nation’s broken tax system is well overdue for comprehensive reform,” said the Michigan billionaire. “And I am so encouraged that, with the president’s leadership, leaders in Congress are poised to finally do something about it.”

DeVos lauded learning experiences tailored to the needs of students in settings that are chosen by parents. She gave examples of students who succeeded at charter and virtual schools and students who used tax-credit scholarship programs to attend private schools with public money. She gave a shout-out to Illinois for passing a private school tuition scholarship tax credit and to New Hampshire for efforts to pass similar legislation.

“Millions of kids today, right now, are trapped in schools that are failing them,” she said. “Millions more are stuck in schools that are not meeting their individual needs. And their parents have no options, no choices, no way out.”

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
DeVos visits with students in mechatronics classes at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

This was DeVos’s first visit to Tennessee as education chief, and she preceded her summit appearance by touring a career and technical education program on Wednesday at Oakland High School, a traditional public school in Murfreesboro, south of Nashville. On Thursday, she heralded students in those tracks as “fully engaged” in learning that eventually will help them land jobs in healthcare, engineering or automotive technology.

“I think we’ve really done a disservice to young people to suggest that the only path to success is a four-year college or university,” she told Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam during a Q&A following her address. “We need to change our language and encourage young people to find the areas that most interest them.”

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.