DeVos Department of Education Clashes with Federal Employees Union over Contract

On Wednesday afternoon U.S. Department of Education employees held a rally to protest the imposition on the Department’s employees of what Betsy DeVos has called a contract agreement. The so-called contract was, however, neither agreed to nor signed by any representative of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The Washington Post‘s Joe Davidson explains: “The Education Department is attempting to enforce a ‘collective bargaining agreement’ on a union that does not agree. The department’s move to foist a contract on the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the Trump administration’s latest and most dramatic attack on federal labor organizations and has implications far beyond the 3,900 employees the union represents at the department. This bold stroke could herald what federal unions across the government might encounter from an administration bent on belittling them.”

Rachel Cohen first broke the story on March 15, in The Intercept: “The union representing nearly 4,000 federal employees working for the U.S. Department of Education filed a complaint this week accusing the agency, run by Betsy DeVos, of union busting…. (M)anagement officials at the Education Department informed their workers’ union, the American Federation of Government Employees Council 252, that they would no longer be bargaining with them. Instead, management issued a 40-page document the department is calling a ‘collective bargaining agreement.’… Education Department staffers have been represented by the AFGE since 1982… In an interview with The Intercept, AFGE Assistant General Counsel Ward Morrow said it’s ‘extremely unusual’ to have to file a complaint over something like this. ‘You can’t even call it a collective bargaining agreement because it wasn’t collective, it wasn’t bargained, and there was no agreement,’ he said.”

In his Washington Post PowerPost commentary, Davidson analyzes the changes taking place: “The Department’s contract is part of a pattern demonstrating the administration’s disdain for organized labor. In September, President Trump initiated his assault with an executive order abolishing labor-management forums, created by former president Barack Obama to foster communication between supervisors and staff.  Trump’s budget proposal, released last month, implicitly blames federal unions for ’employer-employee relations activities (that) currently consume considerable management time and taxpayer resources, and may negatively impact efficiency, effectiveness, cost of operations, and employee accountability and performance.'”

Davidson explains further: “Capitol Hill Republicans have long pushed legislation to restrict ‘official time,’ which allows union officials, while being paid by the government, to engage with managers on a limited set of issues affecting employees generally… Official time is grounded in the obligation of federal unions to represent everyone in a bargaining unit and not just dues-paying members.  Those on official time cannot engage in strictly union activities, like recruiting members. Official time can be used for things such as improving productivity and safety and dealing with retaliation and discrimination.”

Cohen reports that office space and equipment in the Education Department building will no longer be provided to the union: “The new edict seeks to curtail union activity by imposing significant new rules and restrictions on the AFGE… Federal laptops, printers, and cellphones assigned to union members must be returned by March 26.  Union office space must be vacated by April 11, unless the AFGE wants to start paying fair-market rent for its use.  Staffers who serve as union officers are now also being told that they will no longer receive paid leave for time spent performing union representational duties.”

Cohen reports that Education Department spokesperson, Liz Hill blames the union for “dragging its feet on ground rules negotiations without reaching any agreement, and then failed to respond in timely manner to negotiate over the contract proposed by the Department.”

Cohan reports the union’s response from AFGE Council 252 President, Claudette Young: “We did not have any sticking points, we were not at an impasse… We were negotiating ground rules and making progress at every negotiating session. We don’t believe that we had anything we would not have been able to reach an agreement over if bargaining were to continue.”

Education Week‘s Alyson Klein provides background: “The contract dispute is happening as DeVos and her team are working on a major reorganization of the department. The plan calls for merging the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which deals with charter and private schools, with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the main K-12 office, among other changes.  The plan has meant reassignments for senior career managers and other employees.  For instance, the department’s chief privacy officer, Kathleen Styles, was reassigned and replaced by her deputy, Angela Arrington.” DeVos had also planned to break up the Department’s budget office, but Congress blocked that change with a provision added to the omnibus 2018 spending bill passed last week and signed by President Trump.

Klein puts the Department’s internal union dispute in a broader context: “The confrontation at the education department coincides with a big moment for education unions. Teachers in West Virginia stopped work for nine school days until the state legislature agreed to a 5 percent pay raise. Educators in Oklahoma are preparing a walkout in early April, and unions in other states are contemplating a similar move. As secretary, DeVos hasn’t taken sides in the state-level teacher contract disputes… She… said she supported both higher teacher salaries and responsible state budgeting.  But back in Michigan, DeVos and her family rarely saw eye-to-eye with unions, including the Michigan Education Association…. (T)he DeVos family was a force behind a successful campaign in Michigan to turn the state into a ‘right-to-work state.’  The Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization headed up by Greg McNeilly, a long-time associate of the Devoses, helped lead the charge in getting the legislation passed.”

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In Appropriations Bill, Congress Impedes Betsy DeVos’s Plans

There are reasons to worry that the Trump administration is leading our government in the wrong direction—reasons to worry, for example, about a bellicose foreign policy, the destruction of the environment, insufficient health care for the poor, and the failure to maintain our national parks—but in the recent spending bill for Fiscal Year 2018, the bill to provide programs through the end of September, Congress protected the U.S. Department of Education.

The Washington Post‘s James Hohmann identifies Winners and Losers in the Spending Bill. Betsy DeVos is one of seven losers: “The Education Secretary wanted to spend more than $1 billion promoting vouchers while slashing funding for the rest of her department by $3.6 billion, mostly by taking it from programs that help the poor. She also wanted to make big cuts to the Office for Civil Rights and eliminate grant programs that support student mental-health. The final deal basically does the opposite of everything she asked for.  Her department’s funding goes up by $3.9 billion, but she gets zero of the dollars she wanted for the school choice program.  There’s a $700 million increase in funding for a mental health program that will fund school counselors… The Office for Civil Rights, after-school programs and early-childhood education programs all get money she said she didn’t want.”

The outcome of the recent Congressional appropriations bill for 2018 shouldn’t cause advocates for public education to sit back and relax, however. Betsy DeVos is known for decades of dogged lobbying and philanthropy underwriting her one idea—school privatization, which she defines as “letting parents choose a school that meets each child’s needs.”  She has also been quite willing to follow President Trump’s orders to make her department smaller and to undo rules and regulations imposed during the Obama administration to protect students’ civil rights, regulate unscrupulous for-profit colleges, and rein in the private contractors hired by the Department of Education as processors of college loans and debt collectors.

Congress is, however, paying attention. Here is a prominent example of Congress acting—right in last week’s appropriations bill—when problems in the U.S. Department of Education are brought to the attention of key committee members.  The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reports that career Education Department staffers recently notified members of Congress that DeVos had begun reorganizing her department, eliminating a budget office that works closely with Congress, a reorganization that is said even to have concerned Mick Mulvaney, head of the Office of Management and Budget. Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, responded by inserting a provision into the omnibus 2018 spending bill that says: “Provided, That, notwithstanding any other provision of law, none of the funds provided by this Act or provided by previous Appropriations Acts to the Department of Education available for obligation or expenditure in the current fiscal year may be used for any activity relating to implementing a reorganization that decentralizes, reduces the staffing level, or alters the responsibilities, structure, authority, or functionality of the Budget Service of the Department of Education, relative to the organization and operation of the Budget Service as in effect on January 1, 2018.”

Washington’s Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has worked tirelessly to rein in DeVos. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describes Murray’s satisfaction that Congress has so far been able to defend much of the federal government’s role to support public education and protect the rights of all students: “Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state praised the bipartisan agreement to dismiss the ‘extreme ideas to privatize our nation’s public schools and dismantle the Department of Education… I’m proud to have worked with Republicans in Congress to flatly reject these ideas and increase funding for programs Secretary DeVos tried to cut, including K-12 education, civil rights protections, college affordability, and more.'”

Before detailing the spending levels Congress appropriated last week, it is important to put all this into perspective.  According to a November 2017 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, spending by states and local school districts, which together have over ninety percent of the fiscal responsibility for public schools, remains lower in 29 states than before the Great Recession hit in 2008. And reductions in federal funding have exacerbated the problems for states and local school districts: “Federal funding for most forms of state and local aid has fallen.  Federal policymakers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities—outside of Medicaid—in recent years, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions…. (N)on-defense ‘discretionary’ funding (that is, funding that is annually appropriated by Congress), is near record lows as a share of the economy.  Federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance for high-poverty schools—is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.”

In the 2018 appropriations bill passed last week, Congress kept spending levels for essential federal public school support at or somewhat above what was spent last year.  Here is Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describing the funding levels Congress appropriated: “Lawmakers boosted overall spending at the Education Department by $2.6 billion over previously enacted levels in fiscal 2018, up to $70.9 billion.  It’s the highest-ever appropriation for discretionary spending at the Education Department on paper, although not when you adjust for inflation.  In addition, funding for Title I, the biggest pot of federal money for public schools, which is earmarked for disadvantaged students, is rising by $300 million from fiscal 2017 enacted spending, up to $15.8 billion.” The 2018 appropriations bill also includes an additional $299 million for programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a boost for that essential and (still drastically underfunded) federal program to $13.1 billion.  In opposition to Trump’s and DeVos’s wishes, Congress increased the budget for the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from $109 to $117 million.

DeVos had proposed to eliminate Title II, which school districts use to provide professional development for teachers, but Congress funded it at the same level as last year.  DeVos had also proposed eliminating a huge after-school program,the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, in which school districts collaborate with community agencies. These programs are often incorporated as an essential piece in wraparound, full-service Community Schools. Instead of eliminating 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Congress added $20 million to bring the total budget up to $1.2 billion.

In other programs that support children and therefore assist public schools, Congress added $2.37 billion to the Child Care Development Block Grant and added $610 million to support Head Start.

Ujifusa concludes: “Trump’s budget plan for fiscal 2018 would have cut discretionary education spending by $9.2 billion.  So the final appropriations for fiscal 2018 are a significant rebuke of sorts to the president’s education vision.  In fact, the bill Trump signed into law omitted the $250 million private school choice initiative the president and DeVos sought, as well as a $1 billion program designed to encourage open enrollment in districts.

All of this reflects the voices of so many teachers, parents and citizens who have relentlessly pushed back against the extreme anti-government, anti-public education policies of Betsy DeVos and who, this year, have articulated strong support for the institution of public education.  Please keep on keeping on.

Betsy DeVos Runs into Wall of Opposition at House Appropriations Subcommittee Budget Hearing

Betsy DeVos presented her Fiscal Year 2019 Education Department budget request to a House Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday. The hearing was sort of like last year’s contentious confirmation hearing all over again.

DeVos was presenting the Department’s budget request for the fiscal year that begins on October 1, not last year’s budget appropriations which face yet another deadline this week, as the most recent continuing resolution winds down. Partisan gridlock in Congress and dysfunction in the White House have messed up the Congressional budget calendar.

Before the budget hearing, Education Week‘s federal education reporter Andrew Ujifusa warned us not to worry too much about DeVos’s new plans for FY 19: “The timing of DeVos’ testimony before the committee will be somewhat ironic, given that Congress has yet to approve final appropriations for fiscal 2018… Remember also that congressional appropriators haven’t been enthusiastic about Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget plan so far. The House of Representatives approved an appropriations bill last year that cuts the Education Department’s budget, but by significantly less than Trump’s blueprint. And the Senate appropriations bill for DeVos’ department approved by the chamber’s appropriations committee last year actually increased the department’s budget by $29 million. And crucially for DeVos, both bills left out her marquee school choice initiatives, aside from a very small increase for federal charter school aid. So don’t be surprised if lawmakers express surprise or displeasure on Tuesday that the fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 budget proposals are substantively pretty similar.”

DeVos’s budget ideas (see the Education Department’s summary and Andrew Ujifusa’s Education Week summary) for next fiscal year look a lot like the proposals from last year—many of them controversial expansions of school choice for which Congress has, in the past, chosen not to appropriate dollars. This year DeVos asks for $1 billion for an Opportunity Grants school choice program, seeks to increase the federal Charter Schools Program by $160 million, proposes to let states set aside five percent of Title I allocations for some kind of school choice, and adds to STEM grants.  As she did last year, DeVos proposes to eliminate Title II grants for professional development for teachers, and seeks to eliminate the very popular 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program; Congress ignored both requests a year ago.  DeVos’s proposed FY 2019 budget would maintain the current funding level—without any adjustment for inflation—for the Department’s large essential programs, the Title I formula to support school districts serving concentrations of poor children and special education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. DeVos proposes to cut a $400 million Title IV block grant that school districts can use for counselors and cuts the budget for the Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Overall, reports Education Week‘s Ujifusa, “The budget proposed by the Trump administration would cut $3.6 billion from the Education Department, a 5.3 percent reduction that would lower the department’s total spending to just over $63 billion.” Two programs, Title I and IDEA, make up 44 percent of DeVos’s total FY 2019 budget request.

DeVos’s budget request reflects her well known priorities, but if the budget proposal is not surprising, the intensity of Congressional displeasure expressed on Tuesday was notable.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, attacked DeVos for weakening civil rights protections, a primary mission of the Department of Education.  Ujifusa quotes Lee’s challenge to Secretary DeVos: “Lee said the proposed office for civil rights cut, combined with DeVos’ potential decision to reconsider the discipline guidance as well as Obama-era guidance on students of color in special education, revealed the secretary’s true position. ‘Your head is in the sand about racial bias and racial discrimination. You just don’t care much about the civil rights of black and brown children. This is horrible.'”

Reporting for The Hill, Niv Elis describes DeVos failure to respond to the questions of Rep Katherine Clark, Democrat of Massachusetts: “Rep. Katherine Clark… pressed DeVos nearly a dozen times to provide a clear answer on whether she would ensure that private schools receiving public funds through voucher-style programs would be forced to implement LGBT protections. ‘Where dollars flow federal law must be adhered to,’ DeVos said over and over, as Clark demanded a simple yes-no response. After nearly two minutes of back and forth, DeVos finally conceded that yes, adhering to federal law meant insisting on adherence to federal LGBT protections.”

The Hill‘s Elis recounts another interchange between DeVos and Rep Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat. Lowey “engaged in a lengthy exchange with DeVos about whether states or the federal government had the responsibility to provide parents with information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal program. ‘IDEA is a federal law, and where federal funds are involved in states, the federal government has a role. But this is a matter for states.’  DeVos said at one point during the exchange.  ‘I don’t understand this,’ Lowey said in one of her many attempts to clarify the situation. ‘You’re saying it’s up to the states. You don’t have any leadership role in presenting the facts?'” The interchange is reported to have lasted eight minutes.

Elis reports another exchange between DeVos and Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, who demanded to know why DeVos is pulling Impact Aid—“funding support for areas that have large amounts of federal land, such as military bases and Native American Tribes. Those places, he noted, don’t contribute to the state and local taxes that largely fund schools. ‘I am concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.'”

And Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, demanded an explanation of enormous changes in regulations that protect people with college loans from unscrupulous practices of collection agencies and from for-profit colleges and trade schools, which— to collect more federal loan dollars—sell themselves to potential students by over-promising their curricula.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss highlights perhaps the weirdest interchange: “Betsy DeVos said something somewhat astounding Tuesday for a U.S. education secretary… She was… asked about several of her statements on 60 Minutes, when CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl… suggested the education secretary visit underperforming public schools to learn about their problems… During Tuesday’s House hearing, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) referred to that comment, saying, ‘You made a comment just recently that you haven’t visited any poor-performing schools.’  She responded: ‘As secretary, I have made a point of visiting school that are doing things creatively, innovatively, out-of-the-box thinking. Um, I think it would be important to visit some poor-performing schools. I think the question is, ‘Will they let me in?'”

Strauss continues: “To repeat, the education secretary of the United States asked if poor-performing public schools would allow her to enter. She wasn’t joking. That as much as anything underscores the tension between the public school community in the United States and DeVos, who in the past has called traditional public schools ‘a dead end.’  Critics—including some of the Democrat legislators who questioned her Tuesday—say she wants to privatize public education. DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who has spent decades working to promote charter schools and voucher programs, has made clear that her priority is promoting alternatives to traditional public schools. Her 2019 budget proposal seeks $1 billion in new funding for choice programs, including vouchers, which use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition. Congress rejected a similar request from the Trump administration last year. DeVos has visited a variety of schools during her 13-month tenure as education secretary, including traditional public schools, charter schools (which are publicly funded but privately operated) and voucher schools. Though the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren attend  traditional public schools, she has visited charters and private schools at a far higher rate than any other education secretary.”

In “60 Minutes” Interview, DeVos Demonstrates Failure to Grasp Her Own Department’s Mission

On Sunday evening, reporter Lesley Stahl interviewed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for 60 Minutes. You can watch the interview and read the transcript.

Betsy DeVos is not a person of action. In the interview she describes what she believes are the symptoms of education malaise across America and then she prescribes two treatments: more school choice and less federal regulation. DeVos understands herself as an undoer rather than a doer.  When Stahl asks her what she is most proud of accomplishing during her first year as Education Secretary, DeVos replies: “We’ve been looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.”

Yesterday President Donald Trump established a Federal Commission on School Safety, and he put DeVos in charge.  The Washington Post‘s Philip Rucker quotes DeVos on the urgent need for this new Commission: “We are committed to working quickly because there’s no time to waste… No student, no family, no teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again.”

In the 60 Minutes interview, however, DeVos doesn’t appear to plan to do more than convene the school safety commission. Here is  the interchange between Stahl and DeVos on DeVos’s role as chair of the new school safety commission:

Stahl: “Do you see yourself as a leader in this—in this subject? And what kind of ideas will you be promoting?”

DeVos : “I have actually asked to head up a task force that will really look at what states are doing. See there are a lot of states that are addressing these issues in very cohesive and coherent ways.”

Stahl: “Do you feel a sense of urgency:”

DeVos: “Yes.”

Stahl: “Cause this sounds like talking. Instead of acting.”

DeVos: “No, there is a sense of urgency indeed.”

When Stahl asks DeVos directly whether teachers should be armed, a position Trump has endorsed but the majority of teachers have strongly opposed, DeVos waffles: “That should be an option for states and communities to consider. And I hesitate to think of, like, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff, I couldn’t ever imagine her having a gun and being trained in this way. But for those who are—who are capable, this is one solution that can and should be considered. But no one size fits all. Every state and every community is going to address this issue in a different way.”

In perhaps the most important part of the interview, Stahl probes Secretary DeVos’s ideas about what can be done to improve public education in America. DeVos pronounces what has become her standard answer: “What can be done… is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids… Families that don’t have the power…. and they are assigned to that school, they are stuck there.  I am fighting for the parents who don’t have those choices.  We need all parents to have those choices.”

Stahl follows up with the essential question: “Okay.  But what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working?  What about those kids?”  “Why take money away from the school that’s not working? ”

DeVos answers that school choice imposes competition, which, she believes improves schools: “Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in…school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems… Well, in places where there have been—where there is—a lot of choice that’s been introduced… studies show that then there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually—the results get better, as well.”

Stahl: “Now, has that happened in Michigan?… We’re in Michigan.  This is your home state… Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?”

DeVos: “I don’t know.  Overall, I—I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.”

Stahl: “The public schools here are doing worse than they did… Have you seen the really bad schools?  Maybe to try to figure out what they’re doing?”

DeVos: “I have not—I have not—I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”

Stahl: “Maybe you should.”

DeVos: “Maybe I should.  Yes.”

About the undoing of the federal role in education, what DeVos calls federal overreach, she is clearer: “Yeah. We’ve begun looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.” While DeVos has been very busy weakening regulation of for-profit colleges, federal student loan processors and debt collection agencies, the discussion in the 60 Minutes interview centers on the weakening of civil rights protections for students in K-12 schools. Stahl mentions DeVos’s rescinding the guidelines allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice, weakening a rule to prevent disproportionate discipline applied across racial groups, changing Title IX guidelines to focus more on the rights of the accused rather than the accuser.

DeVos seems unable to grasp that the protection of students’ rights by law must apply—and has always historically applied—to protected classes of students, for example, by race, sexual orientation, national origin, gender expression, and religion.  Here is DeVos responding to Stahl’s questions about the Department of Education’s designated role of protecting students’ civil rights: “We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment.  And all students means all students… Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids… I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning.”

When Stahl presses DeVos to clarify exactly how she understands the rules and how the Department of Education will ensure that the Department will fully enforce civil rights protections of the rights of the victims in sexual assault cases, DeVos replies: “I don’t know.  I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.”

None of this, of course, is new or shocking. Our Secretary of Education is extremely consistent. She is an educational libertarian who once declared in a major policy address: “Government really sucks.”  However, in the area of K-12 schools, there are several primary roles assigned to the U.S. Department of Education that are being undermined or ignored under DeVos’s leadership.  DeVos is systematically undoing the role of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

And she is not doing anything to address the issues we know are denying opportunity for millions of our nation’s poorest children.  In a nation that is increasingly segregated by income—with the rich sequestered in privileged suburbs and the poor trapped in particular neighborhoods of our cities and in remote rural areas— DeVos has done nothing to increase Title I, the Department’s primary program for helping schools that serve concentrations of poor children. Nor has she ever discussed ways the Department of Education could incentivize state governments to improve the equitable distribution of state aid to schools. Nor has she ever mentioned partnering with other Departments to develop multi-pronged efforts to ameliorate concentrated family poverty itself.

Her interview with 60 Minutes pretty much describes DeVos’s philosophy of government: undoing and not doing. She fails to grasp that in education, the definition of justice is to distribute opportunity fairly to all children. Government, through the law and the administration of the law by executive departments like Education, is supposed to help with that.  Individuals—the people DeVos always mentions—lack the power to secure justice for themselves.  And in DeVos’s imagined ideal education marketplace, the least powerful individuals will continue to lack the power to compete. DeVos clearly does not grasp that government agencies like the Department of Education are charged with the mission of protecting, by law, the children who have the least power.

DeVos Locks Out Teachers Demanding that Education Department Address Inequity, Protect Civil Rights

Last week Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, marked her first year in office with a news conference where she announced that her greatest accomplishment has been diminishing the role of her department.

For the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit reports: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proclaimed Wednesday that her proudest accomplishments in her first year in office were shrinking he role of the agency, rolling back Obama-era initiatives and erasing outdated regulations… She rolled back key regulations and guidance documents intended to protect transgender students, student borrowers and victims of sexual assault in the name of reining in a department whose role she believes had grown too large.  She used budget cuts and buyouts to reduce the size of the agency.  ‘Some of the most important work we’ve done in this first year has been around the area of overreach and rolling back the extended footprint of this department to a significant extent,’ DeVos said… She is a rarity among education secretaries, having never worked in public schools before her appointment.”

Worse, last Thursday, DeVos locked the doors of the U.S. Department of Education and left Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association (NEA) and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), along with teachers and parent activists, standing on the sidewalk outside. Eskelsen Garcia, Weingarten and a group of pro-public schools activists had tried to make an appointment personally to deliver 80,000 report cards rating DeVos’s accomplishments this year as a failure.

The report cards were created by a coalition of education, civil rights, community organizing, religious and labor organizations—The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. The Alliance released its report card in conjunction with a strong statement about DeVos’s failure to implement the Department of Education’s defined mission to rectify economic and racial justice in the nation’s 90,000 K-12 public schools. School teachers and school support professionals in public schools around the country had added personal comments on the 80,000 report cards Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten attempted to deliver. Together NEA and AFT represent the majority of the nation’s more than 3 million public school teachers.

By rejecting a meeting with leaders of the nation’s school teachers and other public school supporters, DeVos lost the opportunity to listen to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools’ substantive critique: “To assess the Secretary’s leadership, we reviewed the U.S. Department of Education’s mission and purpose statements and identified four specific roles in public K12 education on which to review her work…

  • “Supplementing state and local resources for schools and districts, particularly those serving low-income students and students of color…
  • “Ensuring access and equity in public schools for all students…
  • “Protecting students’ civil rights…
  • “Promoting evidence-based strategies for school improvement.”

The Alliance explains: “We give Education Secretary Betsy DeVos an “F” for failing to pursue the mission of the U.S. Department of Education.” “In each area, it is clear that the Secretary, far from leading the agency to fulfill its mission, is taking us in exactly the opposite direction. This is not based on incompetence, but on a fundamental disdain for the historic role of the federal government in ensuring access and equity to public education for all children.”

The Alliance’s most serious charge is the Department’s failure to fulfill the mission of Title I and the Department’s Office for Civil Rights: “(A)cross the country, we continue to invest more in schools serving white children than in schools serving African American and Latino children. And as the number of students living in poverty has risen in the U.S., state and local funding for public education has decreased in the past decade, deepening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Two critical and historic roles of the U.S. Department of Education are to address these disparities, and protect students from discrimination in their educational experience. But over the past year, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has deliberately refused to fulfill this mandate.”

Last week Politico‘s Kimberly Hefling and Caitlin Emma reported that Betsy DeVos has been taking lessons from the prominent “Republican messaging expert” Frank Luntz—“to figure out how to talk about conservative educational policies without sparking protests from teachers and liberals.”  Hefling and Emma report that a notation appeared on DeVos’s calendar last June: “Frank has a 60-slide deck of the words to use, and the words to lose, regarding parental choice, vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay and all the other issues in education reform.”  According to  Politico, DeVos wants to avoid explicit mentions of school choice and instead talk about “coming together and finding solutions’ with words like “innovation” and “blended learning.”

Politico‘s reporters describe recent speeches in which DeVos uses softer language: “The new message was… on display during a January speech at the American Enterprise Institute, when she said her job is not to be the country’s  ‘choice chief.’  Rather, she said it was time to ask questions, such as  ‘Why do we group students by age?’ and ‘Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?’  ‘We must answer these questions… We must acknowledge what is and what is not working for students.'”

Hefling and Emma continue: “DeVos herself described her focus on ‘rethinking school’ and innovation as a ‘broadening of the message’ during a roundtable with reporters Wednesday.  And expanding school choice options is one way to shake up education, she said. ‘We have to keep changing and getting better at doing school for kids, and helping kids learn in the way they’re wired up to learn,’ she said.  ‘We have far too many places and way too many examples of doing things repeatedly and continuing to double down on doing something the same way and expecting different results.'”

If DeVos wanted seriously to engage such issues, she would have responded to the questions for which NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia has been demanding answers as the condition for setting up a conversation with the head of the National Education Association.  You’d think she might also have politely received Weingarten, Eskelsen Garcia, and their group of pro-public schools advocates when they tried to make an appointment to talk with her on Friday about the Alliance’s serious critique.

That DeVos locked the building to avoid meeting with Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia last Thursday sends a perfectly clear message that cannot be obscured by Frank Luntz’s fuzzy linguistic framing. Betsy DeVos considers the nation’s teachers unions her enemies.

That’s too bad because, while Betsy DeVos herself has never worked in a public school, the NEA and the AFT represent the millions of professionals who are devoting their lives to that very endeavor. They might have some things to teach our inexperienced U.S. Secretary of Education.

Test-and-Punish Just Hangs on as Failed Education Strategy

ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, is like an old, altered, jacket, now frayed at the cuffs. The fabric was never really good in the first place and, when the jacket was made over, the alternations didn’t do much to improve the design. Not much noticed at the back of the closet, the jacket sags there. But it would take too much energy to throw it away.

Pretty much everybody agrees these days that the 2001 school “reform” law, No Child Left Behind, was a failure. The Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos went to the American Enterprise Institute the other day and criticized the education policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, on January 8, 2018, the 16th anniversary of the day President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, Diane Ravitch declared, “NCLB, as it was known, is the worst federal education legislation ever passed by Congress.  It was punitive, harsh, stupid, ignorant about pedagogy and motivation, and ultimately a dismal failure… The theory was simple, simplistic, and stupid: test, then punish or reward.”

In December, 2015, Congress made over No Child Left Behind by passing the Every Student Succeeds Act.  While the law reduces the reach of the Secretary of Education and requires that the states instead of the federal government develop plans for punishing the so-called “failing” schools, ESSA, as the new version is called, keeps annual standardized testing and perpetuates the philosophy that the way to make educators raise test scores faster is to keep on with the sanctions.  ESSA remains a test-and-punish law.

But now it seems ESSA is going out of use like that old, remade jacket. The states, as required, have churned out their ESSA school improvement plans and submitted them to the U.S. Department of Education, and Betsy DeVos’s staff people have been busy approving them—in batches.  This week the Department approved a batch of eleven such plans—from Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Education Week‘s federal education reporter, Alyson Klein describes the eleven plans that were approved this week.

Ohio’s was one of the plans approved, and Patrick O’Donnell at the Plain Dealer perfectly captures the irony of the now pretty meaningless process in Ohio’s ESSA Plan Wins Federal Approval—and Few Care: “Though many observers nationally and here in Ohio had hoped states would present grand new visions for schools through the new plans mandated by 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), that hasn’t happened… State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria’s plan made few changes to the state’s testing and report card system, promising little more than making sure the state follows federal law. A new vision and approach?  That’s all being handled separately, just not in the plan. Critics wanted the plan to make big cuts in state tests. It doesn’t but DeMaria and the state school board later asked the legislature for those cuts.  Others wanted the plan to reduce the use of tests in teacher evaluations.  DeMaria and a panel of educators are seeking those changes apart from the submitted plan. And some wanted the state to show a vision for schools that was less reliant on test scores in academic subjects. School board members and several panels of educators have been meeting the last few months to build new goals that are far more focused on the ‘whole child’ than before.”

There is even some talk in Columbus about the problems of the state’s “A”-“F” letter grades to rate and rank schools and school districts, despite that Ohio’s school report cards with letter grades are a feature of the ESSA plan Ohio submitted and that was approved this week.

The 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act is merely a made over version of No Child Left Behind—made over because Congress wasn’t really ready to accept that the law’s overall strategy of high stakes testing and a succession of punishments has accomplished neither of NCLB’s overall goals: helping the children who have been left behind and closing achievement gaps.

But consensus about No Child Left Behind’s overall failure and the failure of it punitive strategy keeps on growing.  Harvard University’s Daniel Koretz put several more nails in its coffin in his excellent new book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. Please read this book. In it Koretz shows exactly why the scheme of testing all students and punishing the teachers and the schools where scores do not rise quickly cannot work—why the scheme is merely a charade:  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) “The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

If our society were intent on helping the children who have been left behind, we would invest in ameliorating poverty and in supporting the hard working teachers in the schools in our poorest communities. Things like reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program would help!  The ESSA plans being submitted to the Department of Education aren’t having much impact at all.  The old, made-over NCLB jacket is slowly slipping to the back of the closet.