expansion plans

Betsy DeVos promises an expansive school choice plan, says opting out would be ‘terrible mistake’ for states

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.

In a speech to the advocacy group she previously led, Betsy DeVos hinted that an aggressive plan to expand public funding of private schools through the federal government is on the way.

The U.S. education secretary offered few details about the plan, which she said would be voluntary for states. And with an administration besieged by controversy, a skeptical Congress, and disagreement among even school choice supporters, it faces an uphill battle.

That did not deter DeVos in her speech at the annual American Federation for Children conference in downtown Indianapolis.

“The president is proposing the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history,” she said, soon after being greeted by a standing ovation from school choice supporters. “If a state doesn’t want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.”

School choice comes in many forms, but DeVos and the American Federation for Children have long advocated for vouchers and tax credit programs that provide public money to families in order to pay private school tuition. While proponents argue these initiatives provide a lifeline to low-income students, critics say they drain resources from public schools and are ineffective at improving student achievement.

Indeed, DeVos was met with protests from several dozen teachers and public education advocates who criticized her plan before it had even been released. Voucher programs “rob a majority of the students — we’ve got more than 90 percent of the kids in this country sitting in public schools,” Indiana State Teachers Association president Teresa Meredith told Chalkbeat after a rally held before DeVos’s speech.

Even certain school choice supporters are critical of a federal proposal.

“School choice would not only risk being branded as TrumpChoice, but it would be fronted by an unpopular and divisive president,” wrote Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Democrats who are open to school choice but who despise Trump might wonder if they’re missing something when it comes to school choice.”

One prominent school choice supporter, Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, has already backed the proposal. Still, few seem to expect it to become law. In 2015, a bid to give states the option to use federal money to fund private school tuition was easily voted down in the Senate.

In her speech, DeVos emphasized that the administration’s proposal would devolve power to the states, thought it’s unclear how she would accomplish this seemingly paradoxical goal through a federal program.

“We shouldn’t view this as a chance to mandate a one-size-fits all school choice proposal,” she said. “We won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money.”

The last line was perhaps an allusion to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, though she didn’t specify how the Trump administration’s plan would work differently.

Insofar as states will have a choice about school choice, DeVos is clear which direction she thinks they should go.

“Let me be very clear, I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education,” DeVos said. “But those are decisions states must make — no two states are the same and no two states’ approaches will be the same, and that’s a good thing.”

The secretary offered a bevy of options that epitomize the “open system” of choices that families should have access to: “It shouldn’t matter if learning takes place in a traditional public school, a Catholic school, a charter school, a non-sectarian private school, a Jewish school, a home school, a magnet school, an online school, any customized combination of those schools – or in an educational setting yet to be developed.”

Earlier in the evening, Indiana’s Republican Governor Eric Holcomb appeared, and former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak at the conference on Tuesday. Although New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke to the group in previous years, no current elected Democrat appears on this year’s agenda.

DeVos seemed keenly aware of the increasingly partisan breakdown on school choice issues, particularly on school vouchers.

“The oldest school choice program in the country was started by the Democrat,” she said, referring to Milwaukee’s long-running school voucher system. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, please hear this: education should not be a partisan issue.”

Currently about 450,000 students use a voucher or tax-credit funded scholarship to attend a private school.

Recent research in Indianapolis, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. has shown students receiving a voucher saw their test scores drop. There is little research on tax credit programs, partially because many don’t require participating students to take their state test or any test at all.

Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and under-serving those students. Existing voucher programs also allow private schools discriminate against LGBT students.

Proponents point to evidence that public schools improve in response to competition from vouchers, as well as older studies showing that some students attending a private school are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

When Chalkbeat asked Secretary DeVos, as she was leaving through a side entrance, what she thought of recent research on school choice, she responded only, “We’re not taking questions.”

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.