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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.

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.

School choices

School choice supporters downplay new voucher research, saying schools are more than a test score

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

At this week’s gathering of school choice supporters, there was an awkward fact in their midst: A wave of new studies had shown that students receiving a voucher did worse, sometimes much worse, on standardized tests.

That was the inconvenient verdict of studies examining programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and in Indianapolis, where the advocates had convened for the annual conference of the American Federation for Children. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the group’s former leader, gave the keynote address.

But many of the school choice proponents, who had long made the case that their favored reform works, had an explanation at the ready.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, only alluded to the recent studies. “In spite of a few research projects of a narrowly identified group of students, the simple fact is when you create a marketplace of choices and informed parents … the children do better,” he told the audience.

Other leading supporters emphasized the impact the programs have beyond test scores, as well as the shortcomings of recent studies.

“Some of the data that is really interesting [looks at] not just achievement, but attainment,” Robert Enlow, head of EdChoice, a group that backs vouchers and tax credit programs, told Chalkbeat. “A kid may not be doing as well on a test score as we would like, but they’re graduating at higher rates [and] they’re going into college at higher rates.”

Indeed, older studies show that students in Milwaukee’s voucher program were more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. Students in D.C.’s initiative also completed high school at a higher rate.

Enlow also pointed to evidence that private school choice can spur improvements in public schools through competition and increase parent satisfaction rates. Sounding a bit like some of his opponents who lead teachers unions, Enlow argued that test scores are a poor measure of educational quality.

“We want a vibrant society of people who know what they’re doing who are productive members of society,” he said. “A single test doesn’t prove jack about that.”

While EdChoice has said that school choice leads to academic gains, the group has also argued, prior to the recent studies, that parents care about more than just test scores when choosing schools. EdChoice opposes requiring students in voucher programs to take state tests at all. Without such data, making comparisons to public schools is more difficult.

Still, Enlow said, “there are some studies showing that private schools need to get better on test scores.”

Supporters also noted that the studies in D.C. and Louisiana were based on just one and two years of data, respectively. Enlow says that is too little information to draw helpful conclusions, a point echoed by Kevin Chavous, a board member at the American Federation for Children and a former D.C. city council member.

“This is after one year in the program,” said Chavous referring to the recent D.C. report, which analyzed three groups of students after a single year of receiving a voucher. “Studies also show … the longer the kids are in these programs, the better they’ll do.”

An overview of past research on school vouchers, including studies in other countries, found that students were neither helped nor harmed after three years, but saw significant test score jumps in the fourth year.

DeVos hasn’t addressed the topic in depth. After her own Department of Education released the report on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, DeVos stated, “The study released today found that D.C. OSP parents overwhelmingly support this program, and that, at the same time, these schools need to improve upon how they serve some of D.C.’s most vulnerable students.”

Chavous argues that giving families choice means allowing them to pick schools based on what is important to them, which may not be test scores. It’s also hypocritical for those who are skeptical of testing to then use test results to criticize voucher programs, he said.

“You can’t have it both ways — you can’t say we have too much high-stakes testing when it comes to public schools and then when it comes to private choice programs, OK, they aren’t passing the test,” he said.

But he acknowledges inconsistency on his own side among those who use test results to claim that public schools are failing.

“We’re all hypocrites on the testing thing,” Chavous said.

This story has been updated to clarify EdChoice’s previous statements on the value of test scores.