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.

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 in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.

next stop

Robotics is bringing Betsy DeVos to Detroit for the first time as education secretary

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (U.S. Department of Education)

Betsy DeVos is set to appear in Detroit for the first time as education secretary on Friday, though she’s unlikely to encounter local students when she’s there.

DeVos is scheduled to attend a student robotics competition being held downtown in a bid to promote science and math education. The event is also likely to again highlight DeVos’s past influence over education policy in the city, which has been heavily scrutinized.

Before becoming President Trump’s education chief, DeVos, a prominent Michigan philanthropist, was a key architect of policies that many blame for the dire state of Detroit’s schools.

We’ve outlined that debate in full, but the key points are that the state’s charter law puts no restrictions on where or how many charter schools can open, which has created school deserts in some neighborhoods, and far too many schools in others. Both district and charter schools struggle financially with less-than-full enrollments, while student performance suffers across the board.

DeVos’ critics say she has blocked attempts to bring order and oversight to Detroit schools. Defenders note that parents now have more options and that charter school students in the city do slightly better on state exams than their peers in district schools.

DeVos also had a tense exchange with Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes” about Michigan schools back in March.

“Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it,” she said.

DeVos’s announcement says she plans to meet with students on Friday. But while the event is happening in Detroit, the students DeVos encounters at the FIRST Robotics World Championship on Friday will almost surely hail from elsewhere. Earlier this week, Chalkbeat noted that just one city high school in Detroit qualified to send a team.