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Worried Betsy DeVos could ‘destroy’ public education? Here’s what you should know

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Betsy DeVos earned more opposition than any of President Trump’s cabinet picks — and any nominee for education secretary in history.

During that historically divisive process, her critics charged that DeVos wanted to “destroy” public education. Is that charge legitimate or overblown? Now that DeVos has been confirmed, here’s what you should read to start getting a handle on the possibilities.

Fear: She’s going to promote private, religious schools.

DeVos has been among the most powerful advocates of vouchers, which which allow students to use public funds to pay for tuition at private schools, and she has also said her motivation to improve education relates to her desire to “advance God’s kingdom.”

Her opponents argue that vouchers drain support from the public schools that serve the vast majority of the nation’s students, including those students with the highest needs, and that DeVos’s approach skirts too closely to the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. They fear DeVos could end public education by diverting all taxpayer dollars to private schools, including religious schools.

DeVos has said she won’t impose voucher programs — and she can’t, because such programs are up to states to create. Willing state legislatures could seize the moment to grow voucher programs. But a more sweeping impact could come from a policy that DeVos’s lobbying group promoted — a tax-credit program that allows families to donate to private school scholarship funds for their children to use. That approach is already in place in 17 states.

NPR explains why this approach is likely to appeal to DeVos, and how it could work:

It unites three broad concepts that DeVos is friendly toward: 1) Privatization 2) religious education and 3) a hands-off approach to accountability for private schools. …

The tax-credit structure is especially significant when considering what could happen under DeVos in the Trump administration, because it could be a way to promote school choice on a federal level without writing big checks. “There isn’t that much money that is fungible from the federal education budget,” points out Samuel Abrams, an expert in education policy at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Broad support for tuition tax-credits would open up a new frontier in education policy-making, according to Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which supports vouchers. Someone would have to decide whether private schools that receive vouchers are held accountable for student performance and how poor students must be to qualify.

“Is it the feds? Is it the states?” Petrilli said. “It’s all kind of up for grabs.”

Fear: She’s going to end the federal education department’s support for civil rights.

Under Obama, the Education Department stepped up enforcement of civil rights policies and issued guidance on issues affecting transgender students. Civil rights groups are concerned the Trump administration will scale back the Office of Civil Rights, especially given Trump’s apparently limited appetite for protecting or prioritizing marginalized groups.

The Atlantic convened several advocates with an eye on the office to understand what its future could look like under Trump and DeVos. While they had varying opinions about the role of the office under Obama, there was consensus that the Office of Civil Rights will be what DeVos makes of it. Said a leading advocate for transgender students, whom the Obama administration moved to safeguard:

OCR’s mission will not change. How effective it is in carrying out that mission will depend in large part on the resources provided by Congress and the leadership provided by the president and his appointees.

Fear: She’s going to change or dismantle the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

IDEA is the bedrock federal law that guarantees disabled students access to an appropriate public education. So when DeVos said during her confirmation hearing that its enforcement should be left up to states — a claim that she said was made out of confusion — advocates worried that she might not be committed to protecting the rights of students with disabilities.

Since then, DeVos has tried to tamp down the perception that her lack of knowledge about the law means she doesn’t support it. And more important, ignoring the law would invite immediate lawsuits, and altering it would require congressional action by lawmakers whose constituencies all include families of students with disabilities.

The biggest possibility for change: DeVos-supported programs could allow more students to opt out of the protections that IDEA offers. She’s a fan of state voucher programs directed at students with disabilities, which can require parents to waive their children’s rights under that law.

One mother, Bernadette Kerrigan, laid out the trade-off of sending her child to private school using one such voucher in Education Week:

Kerrigan also had to come up with another $18,000 that year to cover tuition costs that the $5,000 part-year voucher did not meet.

Kerrigan said she is grateful for the money. Emma, who will start 6th grade in the fall, is thriving at her new school. The family expects to receive a larger voucher in future years, but it will still cover only a fraction of the school’s $23,000 tuition.

But giving up the civil rights afforded to public school students under the special education law is a sacrifice, Kerrigan said.

Fear: She’s going to gut the federal funding system for schools serving poor students.

The idea that poor students cost more to educate, and thus should be entitled to additional funding, has been enshrined in federal law for more than half a century, and “Title I” funds pump more than $14 billion a year into the nation’s schools. Until now, the funds have always flowed to schools, under the premise that schools with many poor students have steeper challenges than schools with few poor students.

But DeVos told Sen. Al Franken that she would prefer a system that assigns the funds to students, not schools. Vox’s explainer on Trump’s school choice proposal summarizes the policy’s appeal to Republicans:

Republicans have long wanted to turn this program into a voucher. Instead of money going to schools based on the composition of their student body, Title I would “follow the child.” Every disadvantaged student a school enrolled would come with a small pile of federal cash to help pay for his or her education. And schools would get the money whether they were public, private, or charter.

This idea, known as “Title I portability” in education circles, is by now a mainstream Republican policy proposal. Ronald Reagan called for turning Title I into vouchers during his presidency. Mitt Romney wanted to turn both Title I and special education funding into vouchers during his 2012 presidential run. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, introduced a budget amendment to turn Title I into a voucher that could be used at private, public, or charter schools in 2013.

Congress would have to approve changes to Title I rules, and local school advocates are unlikely to get behind portability in large numbers. But if there were ever a moment for such a change to be possible, it’s now.

Dylan Peers McCoy and Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

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Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.