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.

media blitz

Making the rounds on TV, Betsy DeVos says she hasn’t visited struggling schools and draws sharp criticism

DeVos on the Today Show

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has visited all kinds of schools since she took office last year: district-run, charter, private, religious — even a school located in a zoo.

But one kind of school has been left out, she said Sunday on 60 Minutes: schools that are struggling.

It was a curious admission, since DeVos has built her policy agenda on the argument that vast swaths of American schools are so low-performing that their students should be given the choice to leave. That argument, DeVos conceded, is not based on any firsthand experiences.

Host Lesley Stahl pushed DeVos on the schools she’s skipped. Here’s their exchange:

Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?

DeVos: I have not — I have not — I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.

Stahl: Maybe you should.

DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

Her comments attracted criticism from her frequent foes, like American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten, who tweeted:

Even some who are more sympathetic to school choice initiatives said the interview did not go well.

The exchange occupied just a few seconds of the nearly 30 minutes that DeVos spent on television Sunday and Monday, including interviews on Fox and Friends and the Today Show. The appearances followed several school-safety proposals from the White House Sunday, including paying for firearms training for some teachers.

DeVos sidestepped questions about raising the age for gun purchases. “We have to get much broader than just talking about guns, and a gun issue where camps go into their corners,” she said. “We have to go back to the beginning and talk about how these violent acts are even occurring to start with.”

She also endorsed local efforts to decide whether to increase weapons screening at schools. Asked on Fox and Friends about making schools more like airports, with metal detectors and ID checks, DeVos responded, “You know, some schools actually do that today. Perhaps for some communities, for some cities, for some states, that will be appropriate.”

DeVos also said on 60 Minutes that she would look into removing guidance from the Obama administration that was designed to reduce racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions. Education Week reported, based on comments from an unnamed administration official, that the the guidance would likely land on the DeVos task force’s agenda.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has argued that the Obama-era guidance may have contributed to Florida shooting by preventing the shooter from being referred to the police. (In fact, the 2013 Broward County program designed to reduce referrals to police for minor offenses predated the 2014 federal guidance.)

Details of the commission were not immediately available. Education Week also reported that “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases,” “rating systems for video games,” and “the effects of press coverage of mass shootings” are likely to be discussed.

“The Secretary will unveil a robust plan regarding the commission’s membership, scope of work and timeline in the coming days,” Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in an email.

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.