DeVos Hints at ESSA as Means for Feds to Push School Choice but Downplays Federal Oversight

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Washington, D.C.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos continued her push for school choice Wednesday in remarks that called for unbridled options and hinted at a possible federal nudge toward choice through the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Our nation’s commitment is to provide a quality education to every child to serve the public, common good. Accordingly, we must shift the paradigm to think of education funding as investments made in individual children, not in institutions or buildings,” she said.

She spoke at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank that released its annual Education Choice and Competition Index, which rates the country’s 112 largest school districts on 13 measures of school choice. Those measures broadly cover availability of options, how parents make that choice, how choices are funded and the availability of transportation to schools of choice.

DeVos was critical of the highest-rated district, Denver, for being too public-school centric and not having enough private school and other choice options.

The secretary’s remarks, and the questions she answered after her speech, which were perhaps the toughest she’s faced since her firestorm Senate hearing and confirmation process, reflected her belief in a school choice system that includes as many options as possible but has generally little regulation.

The Trump administration’s top priority will be student-focused school policies and increased choice, she said.

Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the institute’s Center on Children and Families, asked DeVos how Americans could measure the administration’s progress toward that goal.

Whitehurst, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said staffers’ unofficial standard for how well they were doing was fourth-grade reading scores on the benchmark NAEP test.

DeVos said she’s “not a numbers person,” but “policies around empowering parents and moving the decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction that we need to go.”

She also hinted for the first time how the Trump administration may try to put its finger on the scale in favor of choice — through the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Through the peer review and then ultimate sign-off on the states’ plans, we’re going to have opportunity to comment to what they are aspiring to do. I suspect that there will be places that we can point out they’re probably being deficient in their approach to one of these measures, and I suspect there will be places that we will want to highlight, suggesting others may want to emulate and follow suit,” she said.

Efforts to push states into school choice programs they don’t want would run afoul of the both the letter and spirit of ESSA, which aimed to shift authority for school accountability back to states and away from the federal government.

ESSA includes a clause declaring nothing in the law shall be construed to allow the Education Department “to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s … allocation of State or local resources.” Encouraging a state to, say, expand magnet schools or create a new voucher program would violate that provision.

Earlier Wednesday at a separate event, Sen. Lamar Alexander, a chief architect of the law, reiterated that he sees the department’s role primarily as cheerleader, and it shouldn’t have any reason to disapprove a state’s ESSA plan.

DeVos added that it was too early to say whether she would turn down any state’s proposal. The first round of state plans are due to the department April 3.

“I think that there’s certainly going to be a lot of discussion and back and forth as we go through this process. The goal clearly is to implement as Congress has intended and to really push it back to the states to create and innovate as they see fit,” she said.

DeVos also dismissed the need for greater federal accountability of schools of choice, arguing that available information for parents was the best way to ensure that schools are doing a good job.

“If we have openness, transparency around results and how students are doing in a particular school, that that will help to address the issue that you’ve raised [of poor-quality schools]. I think having that at a local level and easily available to parents is probably the most important measure,” she said.

Private schools which could be opened to students and families either through vouchers or tax credit scholarships are generally not subject to same standards, accountability and student reporting requirements placed on public charter and district schools.

States can add other levels of accountability, but “we have to take a step back as a federal government and resist the notion that we’re going to be able to manage this all from a top-down approach,” she said.

That market-based approach contrasts with liberals and some Republicans who say there should be some measure of accountability for private schools or other choice options to ensure they’re performing at least as well as traditional public schools and not squandering taxpayer dollars.

DeVos dings Denver

The Brookings paper, which she praised as “important and unique” because of its “parent-centric” approach, ranks Denver and New Orleans’ Recovery School District as the top two nationally. Denver bested New Orleans this year for the No. 1 spot, though both earned an “A” rating.

DeVos, though, urged caution in using the rankings.

“While we may be tempted to emulate cities with a higher grade, I would urge a careful look,” she said.

She contrasted New Orleans, which has an all-charter public school district with available private school options, with Denver, which she said scored well for its single school application and ease of side-by-side school comparisons.

Denver’s high ranking, she says “masks the limited choices there.”

“The benefits of making options accessible are cancelled out when you don't have a full menu of options,” she said. “Choice without accessibility doesn't matter, just like accessibility without choices doesn't matter. Neither scenario ultimately benefits students.”

Whitehurst said both during his remarks introducing the report and in an email to The 74 that opportunities to expand school choice are largely found in intradistrict open enrollment, for which Denver is “an exemplar.”

“I recommend that choice advocates embrace that reality. I hope the Trump administration will find the EECI report and my advice useful,” he said in an email to The 74.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a statement that the district respectfully disagrees with DeVos.

"We do not support private school vouchers. We believe that public dollars should be used for public schools that are open to all kids, whether they are district-run or charter," he said.

Boasberg also touted Denver's "equitable systems of enrollment" among district-run and charter schools, where they all play by the same enrollment rules and are subject to the same accountability system.

"We do not support choice without accountability," he said. 

(The 74: Denver Schools Chief Talks ‘Trump Effect,’ School Closures and Teacher Performance Pay)

New York City; Newark, New Jersey; and Boston round out the top five. Each got a lower score for the survey’s measure of “alternatives for traditional public schools” than New Orleans and Denver, which got the same score.

About a quarter of the schools in the report, 26 of 112, received an F.

“There's clearly a long way to go for many, and I'm hopeful this report helps light a fire under them to better serve students,” DeVos said.

The bottom five districts are Alief Independent School District (southwest Houston); Garden Grove Unified School District (Orange County, California); Arlington, Texas; Davis County, Utah (suburban Salt Lake City); and El Paso, Texas.

DeVos also dismissed the idea that officials should work to improve existing traditional public schools before opening up new options, citing the reported failure of the Obama administration’s $7 billion school improvement grant program.

(The 74: 8 Lingering Questions to Confront After the Failure of Obama’s $7B School Turnaround Plan)

“This is a problem we can’t spend our way out of. We can change the culture by embracing innovative disruptors and empowering parents and students with choice,” she said.

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