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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.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.