devos watch

What’s ALEC? Ahead of Betsy DeVos’s speech, here’s which states earn the group’s education policy praise

PHOTO: Creative Commons

While Betsy DeVos awaits a warm welcome from the American Legislative Exchange Council, there’s a lot to be learned from the conservative group’s most recent report on education.

The education secretary is speaking Thursday at ALEC’s annual meeting in Denver. The group, known for pushing model legislation to state governments, shares her view on school choice: more is better.

Only Arizona, Florida and Indiana received a B+ on ALEC’s most recent state-by-state report on education. (ALEC is a tough grader; that’s the highest grade given to any state.) Here’s what those states tell us about the group’s vision for America’s schools.


The breakdown of Arizona’s grade from ALEC’s 2017 Report Card on American Education.

Arizona gets high marks for its charter school rules, a rating pulled from the Center for Education Reform, which backs light regulation of charter schools. Nearly 19 percent of Arizona students attended a charter school last year — the highest share of any state in the country. In terms of growth, the state doesn’t have a cap on the number of charter schools that can open.

Arizona also received an A for its private school choice programs. Four of those are tax-credit scholarship programs, which use tax breaks to incentivize donations that families can then use for private-school tuition.

Although ALEC looks to Arizona’s tax-credit scholarship programs as a model, others have criticized them for loose regulations on how voucher-granting groups can spend their money.

The fifth program allows families to use educational savings accounts to spend public money directly on certain education expenses, like private school tuition or tutoring. DeVos congratulated the state’s governor on Twitter when that was approved.


The breakdown of Florida’s grade from ALEC’s 2017 Report Card on American Education.

Florida offers its students tax-credit scholarships, educational savings accounts and private school vouchers, earning it an A for private-school choice.

The state’s school choice movement began when Jeb Bush spearheaded tax-credit scholarships for low-income students and students with disabilities during his time as governor. (ALEC’s work and Bush’s work overlap: the report’s digital learning grades come from a 2014 analysis by Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.)

Choice programs in Florida show mixed results when it comes to boosting test scores. Some critics also say that the state’s voucher program fails to serve many students with disabilities. Still, participation in most of these programs has been steadily increasing.


The breakdown of Indiana’s grade from ALEC’s 2017 Report Card on American Education.

Indiana is home to the largest private school voucher program in the country, which served about 34,000 students last year. (DeVos has visited multiple schools participating in the program, praising one for its diversity.)

The size of the program means it’s faced plenty of scrutiny, too. State data shows that the program is increasingly serving middle-class families whose children never attended public school. Some have raised questions recently about schools that deny services to LGBT students.

Indiana also offers two tax-credit scholarship programs.

The state got an A for its charter-school policies, which place no caps on the number that can open. Indiana’s charter schools also face their own problems: Chalkbeat has documented how students at Indiana’s virtual charter schools consistently earn low test scores. Chalkbeat also found that Indianapolis’ charter schools are some of the city’s most segregated.

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

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.