Six months into the Trump Administration, it is time to consider what’s happened in public education policy under the leadership of Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education. Here are brief updates.
Office of Civil Rights (OCR)—Just this week, Betsy DeVos announced that she is “returning” the OCR “to its role as a neutral, impartial, investigative agency.” Caitlin Emma explains at POLITICO, “In a July 11 letter to Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, DeVos asserted that the department’s civil rights arm under the Obama administration ‘had descended into a pattern of overreach, of setting out to punish and embarrass institutions rather than work with them to correct civil rights violations and of ignoring public input prior to issuing new rules.” When a complaint is filed, DeVos has established new procedures to look at individual violations without an in-depth exploration of whether the specific alleged violation is an indication of systemic problems during the prior three years. DeVos has also stopped pushing hard to protect the rights of transgender students, and seems to be weakening Title IX enforcement around sexual abuse. This week, DeVos has run into huge pushback from Senator Patty Murray, who has demanded the resignation of Candace Jackson, the acting OCR chief, who recently commented that 90 percent of sexual assualts on campus “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not right.'” Senator Murray and many others are concerned about two issues here. First, the Office of Civil Rights is not intended to be a neutral investigative agency. It is charged with investigating civil rights complaints and ensuring that the law is enforced to protect students whose rights violated. Second, the head of the Office of Civil Rights is not supposed to be expressing her own bias in advance about complaints that are likely to be brought to the agency.
Higher Education—DeVos is delaying two Obama-era rules that were designed to protect students from unscrupulous recruitment by for-profit colleges, particularly trade schools that depend for nearly 90 percent of their operating funds on federal grants and loans. Default rates are alarming, which means that the Obama-era rules were also designed to protect taxpayers. DeVos’s Department of Education is delaying enforcement of these rules as a prelude to rewriting them.
- Gainful Employment Rule—Writing for Inside Higher Education, Andrew Kreighbaum explains: “The rule was crafted to put a spotlight on programs producing graduates with extremely high ratios of debt to income—and to eventually remove access to federal aid if they don’t improve.” Many of these programs have been lying about what students are likely to earn once the students have earned certificates, and students are then unable to make their loan payments. The gainful employment rule required schools to publish the average debt to income ratio students were likely to experience after graduation. Kreighbaum reports: “When Betsy deVos announced the delay of key provisions of the gainful-employment rule… she said the Obama-era regulation would limit the kinds of education students could pursue.”
- Borrower’s Defense Rule—Here is the purpose of this Obama-era rule, according to POLITICO‘s Michael Stratford: “The rule, known as ‘borrower defense to repayment,’ sought to make it easier for defrauded student loan borrowers to seek debt forgiveness. They also prohibit colleges from requiring students to resolve complaints against their school through arbitration rather than in court… Obama’s regulations were meant to clarify and make uniform the standard for which borrowers could seek forgiveness—for example when a school makes a ‘substantial misrepresentation’ to students. The rules also set up a more formal system for allowing the Education Department to stick the predatory colleges, rather than the taxpayers, with the cost of loan forgiveness. But the government would still pick up the tab where the school became defunct.” Bill Chappell, a reporter for NPR, explains that the rule, “was negotiated after two large for-profit chains—Corinthian Colleges and the ITT Technical Institute—shut down hundreds of campuses following regulatory crackdowns in recent years. The rule would allow borrowers to have their loans forgiven if a state has successfully taken action against a for-profit school.” In early July, eighteen states and Washington D.C. filed a lawsuit against education secretary Betsy DeVos to prevent the delay in enforcement of this protection for students preyed upon by unscrupulous for-profit institutions.
Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—When Betsy DeVos is asked about school accountability, she flips the subject to her own libertarian bias by saying something like, “I suggest we focus less on what word comes before ‘school,’ whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed, and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve. We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.” DeVos defines school accountability very simply as “school choice.” By choosing the school that works for their kids, DeVos says, parents are holding schools accountable.
But that doesn’t seem to be how staff in the Department of Education are responding to the school improvement plans being submitted by states as required by ESSA (the December 2015, reauthorization of the federal education law—the replacement for the 2001 No Child Left Behind). When Congress reauthorized the law, it left in place the requirement for annual testing but at the same time gave more latitude to the states to set goals and make plans for school improvement. What all this meant wasn’t worked out before the Obama administration was replaced by Trump-DeVos. States have, as required, been submitting drafts to be reviewed by the Department of Education, and staff have been sending back the plans with recommendations that states be more rigorous in the goals they set and how they are going to get there.
Hence, a conflict has arisen between the Republican administration and the Republican Congress. Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal education reporter explains: “Sen. Lamar Alexander, R.Tenn., one of the main architects of the Every Student Succeeds Act, thinks Jason Botel—the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, and one of the education department’s key point people on ESSA—should take a closer look at the law he’s been charged with implementing. ‘I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully,’ Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee, said in an interview. ‘The heart of the entire law… was that it’s the state’s decision to set goals, to decide what ‘ambitious’ means, to make decisions to help schools that aren’t performing well.'”
There remains enormous controversy over NCLB’s test-and-punish, sanctions-based philosophy of school accountability. Many, including this blogger, believe NCLB damaged the most vulnerable schools and communities and failed to support school improvement. But the issue currently is that despite Betsy DeVos’s relentless, libertarian claim that parents are responsible for accountability through school choice, her staff are taking what the chair of the Senate HELP Committee believes is an overly punitive approach to ESSA enforcement. We can expect the debate over school testing and accountability to continue.
Federal Money for Private School Tuition via Vouchers, Tuition Tax Credits, and Education Savings Accounts—While Betsy DeVos speaks like a broken record about school choice, the only federally funded school tuition voucher program of any kind remains in Washington, D.C. A House appropriations committee released a budget draft on July 12 that seems to leave out for the next year an expansion of the kind of widespread programs DeVos has championed. Here is the Washington Post’s Emma Brown: “The House GOP also appears to have largely rejected Trump’s proposals to expand private-and public-school choice, according to education advocates who have studied an Appropriations Committee bill released Wednesday afternoon… Trump had sought $1 billion to encourage public school districts to adopt choice-friendly policies, and another $250 million to expand private school voucher programs. The GOP budget bill appears to leave out both.” The public school choice program left out of the House bill is for Title I Portability, a program that was debated and rejected by Congress during the 2015 reauthorization of the federal education law.
The D.C. voucher program, dating back to 2004, was reauthorized by Congress in May as part of this year’s 2017 federal budget deal. As part of that deal, Congress reauthorized the program until 2019 and imposed the requirement that the schools that receive the vouchers must become accredited by 2021. D.C. Vouchers currently serve 1,100 students with vouchers of up to $8,452 for elementary or middle school and up to $12,679 for high school, according to Mandy McLaren and Emma Brown for the Washington Post.
McLaren and Brown reported earlier this week that, “it’s impossible for taxpayers to find out where their money goes: The administrator of the D.C. voucher program refuses to say how many students attend each school or how many public dollars they receive. It’s also not clear how students are preforming in each school. When Congress created the program in 2004, it did not require individual private schools to disclose anything about student performance… Congress sends about $15 million each year to a nonprofit administrator of the program that, in turn, gives scholarships to District children for use at private schools.”
After the Washington Post sent inquires to the 47 private schools that participate, 15 responded by reporting the number of students they serve. While Sidwell Friiends has been enrolling one or two voucher students each year, Beauvoir elementary, whose campus is on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral and whose tuition is $35,000 per year, enrolls none. “But at the Academy for Ideal Education—which offers ‘stress free, holistic learning that helps students integrate the right and left hemispheres of their brains,’ according to its website—27-30 students are on vouchers… Thirty-nine of 45 students—87 percent—of students at Academia de la Recta Porta International Christian Day School… are on vouchers… Eighty-one percent of students at Calvary Christian Academy, in a church in Brentwood, pay tuition with vouchers… Critics also say some students with special needs have a hard time using vouchers. Private school profiles published by Serving Our Children, the voucher administrator, show that one in five do not serve students with learning disabilities; half don’t serve students with physical disabilities; and two-thirds don’t serve students learning English as a second language.”
To summarize—Betsy DeVos has said she intends to “neutralize” the Office of Civil Rights, which can only be interpreted as weakening its role. DeVos is delaying rules to protect borrowers who have been defrauded by unscrupulous for-profit colleges. While DeVos promotes school accountability through parental school choice, her staff are busy demanding continued test-and-punish accountability from the states. And finally, the D.C. voucher program remains the only federally funded tuition voucher program, despite that DeVos has declared the expansion of several kinds of school vouchers to be her priority.