Petrilli: 20 Big Questions For Education Secretary Nominee Betsy DeVos

Reading the tea leaves of presidential appointments is always a fun spectator sport in the swamp that is Washington, D.C., but more so this year, with a president-elect whose campaign was light on policy details, and especially on education, where Donald Trump uttered hardly more than a slogan or two.

So — after a well-earned and much-deserved hearty congratulations to her — let the speed-reading begin, now that Betsy DeVos has accepted the position as Trump’s secretary of education.

One thing seems clear from this pick: Trump is serious about doing something on school choice. That’s been DeVos’s passion for years, most recently in her role as chairman of the American Federation for Children. But that won’t make Republican lawmakers as happy as you might think, because of the GOP’s long-standing internal conflict between pursuing reform from Washington and abiding by its federalist, small-government principles. No less a school-choice fan than Cato’s Neal McCluskey wrote just yesterday that “the feds have no constitutional authority to promote school choice. Nor should we want them to.”

I suspect Trump will also come to appreciate DeVos’s political savvy — something that comes in handy for all Cabinet secretaries. She was one of the first people in ed reform to understand that we weren’t going to beat the teachers unions with op-eds and policy papers (as much as it pains me, a think-tank guy, to say that). She pushed the private-school-choice movement to invest in serious political giving much earlier than the mainstream reform groups did — and, so far, with much greater success.

I don’t know DeVos well — I’ve met her only once, to discuss a Fordham Institute study that is now underway regarding student engagement in high school. (She funded that study, via the American Federation for Children.) But what I do know is that she’s smart, committed to kids and a mainstream conservative Republican.

Still, there’s a lot that’s not clear, so it’s going to be important for the press, and for the Senate HELP committee, to ask a lot of questions to understand where she and the president who chose her plan to take federal education policy. Let me offer 20 to get the ball rolling:

1. Federal involvement nearly killed the Common Core State Standards. Are you worried that federal involvement could do the same to school choice?

2. President-elect Trump talked about a $20 billion program for school choice on the campaign. Will you pursue a program of that scale?

3. Will you propose that the money come from existing programs (Title I and IDEA especially), or will this be new money?

4. The school-choice movement and broader reform efforts have focused mostly on helping low-income kids and children of color. Is that focus appropriate, or should we have a broader aim, including better serving middle-class and affluent students, too? And other ill-served populations such as gifted kids?

5. Should private schools participating in school-choice programs be subject to testing requirements, and if so, what kind? Should they be rated in the same way (or a similar way) as public schools?

6. Do you think test scores are important indicators of student success?

7. Education Secretary John King has pushed charter schools to curtail their use of student suspensions. Do you agree with him, or do you think that student discipline is an area where charters should have autonomy?

8. School choice is hard in rural areas, yet that’s where President-elect Trump received some of his strongest support. Are online charter schools an answer? What do you make of their terrible performance record to date?

9. It was reported that you opposed efforts to beef up quality-control measures for Michigan’s charter schools. Can you explain how you saw this and what your position was?

10. Your husband founded a charter school in Michigan, the West Michigan Aviation Academy. What have you learned from that experience?

11. Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, has called on President-elect Trump to triple the federal funding for charter schools to $1 billion a year. Do you support that increase?

12. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) made it illegal for the U.S. Department of Education to have anything to do with state academic standards, including the Common Core. Will you respect state decisions on standards? Do you expect to do anything to discourage states from using the Common Core?

13. The current administration is expected to finalize ESSA regulations before President Trump is inaugurated, including a rule that states must issue single A–F grades or ratings for every one of their schools. Will you repeal that rule?

14. The Obama folks are also expected to finalize a rule requiring equal funding for Title I schools under the law’s “supplement not supplant” provision. Republicans in Congress aren’t at all happy with that regulation. Will you repeal it?

15. The Obama Administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter explaining to educators that it would apply “disparate impact theory” to student discipline, meaning that districts (and, presumably, charters) could be investigated if the numbers of kids who are disciplined are skewed by race (or another variable) even if their discipline policies are race-neutral and applied evenhandedly. Will you repeal that policy?

16. Some privacy advocates believe that existing federal laws should be implemented in a way to make it much harder for states or school districts to share data with evaluators. How would you articulate the right balance between student privacy and evaluating the efficacy of educational interventions?

17. Is “college for all” the right goal, and, to the extent that it isn’t, what would be?

18. Some people argue that preparing students for citizenship has been an afterthought among reformers. Should that get more attention? Is there anything the federal government can or should do to be constructive on that front?

19. The Perkins Act, which authorizes career- and technical-education programs, is stalled in Congress. Will you make it a priority to get it to President Trump’s desk in his first 100 days?

20. Many institutions of higher education, including community colleges, regularly admit students who are far from college-ready in reading, writing and mathematics. These students are placed in remedial education and almost never complete a higher-education credential. Do you think such institutions should continue to receive federal funding for these students, including Pell Grants and loans? Should Pell Grants be permitted to be spent on remedial education?

Let me know, senators and education journalists, when you’re done with those 20, and I’ll send you 20 more.

The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation provides funding to The 74, and the site’s Editor-in-Chief, Campbell Brown, sits on the American Federation for Children’s board of directors, which was formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos. Brown played no part in the reporting or editing of this article. The American Federation for Children also sponsored The 74’s 2015 New Hampshire education summit.

The 74 is supported by donations from foundations, corporate sponsors and individuals. Our reporters play no role in cultivating financial relationships with any of our contributors. Donors do not dictate editorial content and understand that The 74 may publish content that does not reflect their views or preferences.

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