How Will the DeVos Department of Education Implement the Every Student Succeeds Act?

Between 2002 and the end of 2015, many who care about U.S. public education lived and breathed strategies for ending No Child Left Behind’s rigid and punitive accountability mechanisms. The law was supposed to make all public schools accountable for improving schooling, especially for children in poverty and children in racial and ethnic groups who have historically been marginalized. NCLB was supposed to ensure that every child in America would be proficient by 2014. Its strategy was using fear as the motivator—driving everybody to work harder to avoid terrible sanctions like teachers being fired, schools being closed, and schools being turned over to private operators.

But, although teachers were fired, and schools were closed, and schools were turned over to private contractors, test scores did not rise appreciably and achievement gaps did not close.  And, because test scores in the aggregate reflect family and community economic levels, the schools that were closed or privatized were too often in the big city neighborhoods the law was supposed to help and the teachers who were fired were too frequently black and brown teachers living and teaching in those cities.

So… when Congress replaced No Child Left Behind with a newer version of the federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act, many people hoped for more support for the poorest schools in America’s big cities.  And supporters of public school improvement were not sorry that the Republicans who dominated Congress in December 2015 seemed to want to soften the “punish” part of test-and-punish. The testing part, unfortunately, remains: once every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  But the punish part was turned over to the states, who were told they must set goals for improving test scores and find ways to reach those goals.  It was all pretty vague—and lots of people worried that what it really meant was a return to states’ rights.  That worry paled, however, compared to a widespread consensus that it is impossible to punish schools into raising test scores.

Then a year later Betsy DeVos, the devoted privatizer and strong supporter of less regulation of education, arrived to lead the U.S. Department of Education. People began watching as, in the spring of this year, states began submitting their required ESSA plans—their goals for raising test scores and their strategies to push schools to reach those goals. Everybody was shocked in early July when DeVos, the de-regulator, allowed her department to demand that Delaware make its plan tougher on accountability. Here is Erica Green of the NY Times:  “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made a career of promoting local control of education, has signaled a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out an expansive new federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has rattled state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike.”

Green describes Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, pushing back at the Republican Secretary of Education: “Proponents, especially congressional Republicans and conservative education advocates, believed that a new era of local control would flourish under Ms. DeVos…. But her department’s feedback reflects a tension between ideology and legal responsibility.”

It turns out that the person at the Department of Education who has been reviewing states’ ESSA plans is Jason Botel, an acting assistant secretary of education. (His appointment has not yet come before the Senate.) Botel is a longtime corporate school reformer whose background includes stints at KIPP charter schools and Maryland’s chapter of 50CAN, an advocacy organization supportive of strong accountability for public schools. Erica Green quotes Botel advocating for a strict interpretation of the wording of ESSA, which spells out that states’ plans must be ambitious: “Because the statute does not define the word ‘ambitious,’ the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state’s long-term goals are ambitious.”

Senator Alexander responded: “I think we have a case of an assistant secretary who hasn’t read the law carefully… 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.” (What this means is a little unclear, as in the past test-and-punish was defined as “helping” schools that aren’t performing well.)

On Monday morning of this week, the Department of Education, in a notice published in the Federal Register, answered Senator Alexander’s concerns—clarifying what sort of evidence it will require from states to ensure their accountability plans are ambitious.  Here is Sarah Sparks of Education Week explaining how the Department will interpret the rules: “For the most part, the rules tweak or clarify existing rules to incorporate ESSA’s four increasingly rigorous levels of evidence: …To use an intervention or approach for school improvement under ESSA, it must be backed by research that is strong (experimental trials), moderate (quasi-experimental), or by promising studies that don’t meet the higher standards of rigor but still statistically control for differences between the students using an intervention and those in a control group. For topics aside from school turnaround where there just is no rigorous research, states and districts can test an intervention while conducting their own study.”

Also this week, Betsy DeVos signed off on the ESSA plan Delaware had presented and Botel had rejected, though the state tweaked the application a bit to satisfy the Department. Alyson Klein summarizes for Education Week: “Delaware made some tweaks to its plan, and clarified some things for the department. The state gave some more information to show why its goal of cutting the number of students who don’t score proficient on state tests in half by 2030 is, indeed, ambitious.  And it explained that all public high school students do, in fact, have access to the courses, tests, and other measures the state wants to use to figure out whether students are ready for college and the workforce. Delaware also moved science test scores to another part of its accountability system, at the behest of the feds… Apparently, all that was good enough to convince DeVos—who has final say over giving a state plan the thumbs up or down—to approve Delaware’s ESSA vision.”

What seems clear is that ESSA enforcement is not Betsy DeVos’s top priority. It also seems that the Department, under DeVos’s leadership, is not going to make waves with powerful Congressional Republicans like Lamar Alexander.

It is also clear that federally driven, test-based school accountability is not going away. One can only hope that academic researchers and the Department of Education will watch carefully to see if any of the evidence-based strategies states impose under ESSA as the response to low test scores do begin to deliver real improvement in our nation’s struggling schools.

My prediction is that in a climate of tax cutting and austerity budgeting at the federal level and in many states, we won’t see much school improvement. Across the states schools are unequally funded, with struggling rural and urban schools overwhelmed as well by student poverty that is being exacerbated by budget cuts to the health and social service programs needed by the same students who attend the poorest schools. No Child Left Behind never delivered the necessary resources to jump-start school improvement nor has Congress attached significant resources to ESSA.  And Trump’s budget proposal does not increase the  Title I formula, the one federal funding stream designed to support schools serving concentrations of children living in poverty.

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Deep Concern Intensifies Over DeVos Nomination As Senate Vote Nears

The Senate’s vote on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education will be tomorrow, February 7.  Two Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have declared they will join all the Democrats to vote against Ms. DeVos. The confirmation of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General has been delayed to ensure that he can vote with his Republican colleagues to get the DeVos nomination over the bar before he quits the Senate to assume his new position leading the Department of Justice. Unless another Republican changes his/her mind, it is expected that Vice President Mike Pence will break the tie vote to confirm the DeVos nomination. This would be the first time in history that a vice president has had to break a tie on a Cabinet appointment.

The NY Times‘s Gail Collins summarizes succinctly just why President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos has become so controversial: “How bad do you need to be to get rejected for Donald Trump’s cabinet? We’ve got nominees who don’t really know anything about the subject they’d be overseeing. Some hatehatehate the federal programs they’d be charged with guiding. Some have messy financial issues that haven’t been resolved. But Trump’s pick for secretary of education swept the board. Trifecta!  Betsy DeVos, it’s become clear, knows very little about public schools, doesn’t like them and has minimal experience in management. Plus, she’s a billionaire whose money is in a bewildering stack of holding companies.”

Despite her ethics clearance, her conflicts of interest go way back. Not only is she invested in a chain of dubious and for-profit Neurocore brain wave therapy centers whose claim is to cure Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but she and her husband were also invested a decade ago in the online charter giant K12 Inc, whose company-reported graduation rates have been widely questioned along with those of other schools in the cyber charter sector where students study on computers from home. Here is Benjamin Herold’s report for Education Week last Wednesday: “In her written response to questions from a key Democratic senator, Education Secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos defended full-time online charter schools using graduation rates significantly higher than those used for state and federal accountability purposes. The figures and language cited by DeVos directly mirror those used in a report from K12 Inc., the country’s largest for-profit operator of cyber charter schools, in which DeVos is a former investor. According to the Ohio education department, for example, the Ohio Virtual Academy has a four-year graduation rate of 53 percent, good for an ‘F’ on the state’s accountability system. DeVos has put the figure at 92 percent.”  In her answers to questions, DeVos used K12 Inc.’s scores not only for the Ohio Virtual Academy but also for the Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma and Utah Virtual Academies, all affiliates of K12 Inc. Why does this matter so much? Well, Betsy DeVos has expressed a lifelong commitment to school choice, but in a state with a lot of tiny towns where the public schools are the only educational institutions and where opening a number of school choices through vouchers and charter schools isn’t possible, really the only way education can be privatized and profits made is through “distance” learning online. Most objective evaluations of online learning, however, such as from the pro-school-choice Walton Foundation and the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes have found that virtual schools don’t really work very well.

Strong opinion pieces have proliferated in the press this week. In Wanted: One Republican with Integrity, to Defeat Betsy DeVos, the editorial board of the NY Times declared: “There are few more telling examples of Mr. Trump’s disdain for the federal government’s critical role in lifting up America’s schoolchildren than his choice of Ms. DeVos… Betsy DeVos’s nomination is not about making public education more effective, or helping publicly schooled children succeed; it’s about blowing up the system without a clue as to what comes next.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board demanded:  Sen. Rob Portman–Stand Up and Reject Betsy DeVos.

Senator Tim Kaine was joined by retired Senator and former chair of the Senate HELP Committee, Tom Harkin expressing dismay about Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing, in which DeVos demonstrated confusion about what would be her responsibility, if confirmed, to enforce  protections for students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): “As the potential champion of all students in the country, including students with disabilities, DeVos should understand and protect the constitutional right of a child with a disability to an accessible and free public education…. DeVos’ uninformed responses about IDEA made clear there are serious questions about her ability to serve and support children and youth with disabilities across the country. The United states currently serves 6.5 million students under the IDEA….”

The most personal and moving commentary is from New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan in the NY Times: “Ensuring access to public education for every student is an issue that is personal to my family. My adult son Ben was born with cerebral palsy. Ben is bright and funny (and quite handsome, according to this unbiased source.) He cannot walk, cannot use his fingers to type and can speak only in difficult-to-understand single words. If Ben had been born a generation or two earlier, we, his parents would have been pressured to put him in an institution. But Ben was able to go to a public school in his hometown, Exeter, N.H., because of the tireless work of the advocates, educators and public officials who came before us. Ben had the opportunity to go to school and make friends in his own community—something that all parents want for their children… Instead of supporting public schools, Ms. DeVos has supported voucher systems that divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools without requirements for accountability… To use a voucher, families are sometimes forced to sign away their child’s legal rights, and the schools receiving the voucher often lack the experience or resources necessary to educate the child.”

If you can make time, I urge you to watch Senator Patty Murray, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, in the speech she presented in an unusual 6:30 AM session of the Senate last Friday (Murray’s speech begins at 8  minutes into the video.) as the Senate voted to move the DeVos nomination to a vote by the full Senate at the beginning of this week.  Murray describes how HELP Committee Chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, a devotee of school vouchers and privatization, railroaded the nomination of DeVos through the HELP committee, limiting debate and forcing the committee to consider the nomination despite the late arrival of a less-than-transparent Ethics Committee report on DeVos’s complicated financial holdings. Murray describes the holding companies within holding companies and multiple DeVos and Prince family trusts that are virtually impossible to untangle. And she criticizes DeVos’s poor performance in her HELP Committee confirmation hearing, a hearing that exposed DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and apparent ignorance about basic education issues: “Betsy DeVos has spent her career and her fortune rigging the system to privatize and de-fund public education… She has no experience with public schools except through her work trying to tear them down… She has committed herself for decades to an extreme ideological goal: to push students out of public schools and weaken public education no matter what. And she has spent millions of dollars in political donations and on organizations and super PACs to try and influence elections and policies to accomplish her goal.”

Please keep up the pressure on your Senators before tomorrow’s vote.  Here are links to the Senators’ phone numbers and here is an action alert from the National Education Association that you can personalize and send if you cannot get through on the phone.

HELP Committee Sends DeVos Confirmation to Full Senate; Possible Cracks Open in Republican Support

Yesterday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held its vote on President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as the next U.S. Secretary of Education. The members of the committee voted 12 to 11 (All Republicans voted yes, and all Democrats voted no.) to report the nomination for a vote of the full U.S. Senate. (I watched the live feed of the hearing and was moved by the depth of concern for public education expressed by several committee members. My commentary is from my notes; because there has to this time been no published transcript of the full committee meeting, I have linked all direct quotes to published press reports.)

The committee hearing was definitely not a routine proceeding. Two Republican Senators—Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—expressed strong reservations about DeVos even as they voted to forward her nomination for a full Senate vote. Collins and Murkowski both said they are still considering whether or not they will finally vote to confirm the nominee. They explained that yesterday they voted to forward the nomination as a courtesy to the President.

In one of her reports after the proceeding, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post writes: “Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire chosen by President Trump to be education secretary, brings a whole new dimension to the discussion of polarizing figures in education leadership. DeVos is clearly the most controversial education nominee in the history of the nearly 40-year-old Education Department… No education secretary nominee was opposed by the ranking member of the Senate education panel before Tuesday, when Democratic Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) voted against DeVos…. (T)he opposition to DeVos is less about politics and more about her vision for the future of American education.  DeVos has long been seen by many in the education world as on the forefront of the movement to spread school choice and using public dollars to allow families to pay for tuition at private schools and religious schools that are poorly regulated. She has directed millions of dollars from her family fortune to support candidates and programs that spread school choice—at the expense, critics say, of traditional public schools that educate the vast majority of America’s school children.”

Committee Chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, a former Secretary of Education himself under President George H.W. Bush, admitted in his opening statement that although the committee has been able to work together through bipartisanship in the past, in the crafting of the Every Student Succeeds Act as a replacement for No Child Left Behind, for example, the committee members are irreconcilably split on the issue of the DeVos nomination. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island accused Committee Chair Alexander, for example, of “steamrolling” the DeVos confirmation vote.

Two Democrats were particularly profound as they explained why they were opposing the DeVos nomination in the committee and why they will vote against her confirmation on the Senate floor.  Senator Tim Kaine read from a formal statement he released last Wednesday: “I will oppose Betsy DeVos’s nomination. She failed to meet three requirements I consider essential to serving as Secretary of Education—someone who is pro-public schools, pro-accountability, and pro-civil rights… Mrs. DeVos has said that public schools are a ‘dead end’ and that ‘government really sucks’ when it comes to education. This statement betrays the commitment of thousands of public school teachers who work hard every day in our public schools, many in tough working conditions, to ensure our children are educated… I am also concerned that Mrs. DeVos does not recognize that accountability for all schools is essential…. During her confirmation hearing, I asked Mrs. DeVos whether all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be held equally accountable for outcomes…. Mrs. DeVos repeatedly refused to say there should be equal accountability between public, public charter, and private schools receiving tax dollars. Mrs. DeVos also left me in doubt about whether she would uphold critical civil rights laws, including the rights of thousands of students with special needs.”  At yesterday’s hearing, Kaine added that as the former governor of Virginia, a state he described as using “states rights” to deny African American children their right to public education in the past, he said he personally understands and respects the federal government’s role to protect the rights that particular states or school districts might deny enrolled students.

Senator Al Franken’s comments yesterday to explain his vote to deny Ms. DeVos’s confirmation referenced a question he asked in her committee hearing two weeks ago—a question about concepts central to school accountability policy—whether schools should be evaluated based on whether their students reach benchmark proficiency levels or whether there is measured growth in their learning over time. Here is Franken’s comment yesterday as quoted by Valerie Strauss: “And the way we hold schools accountable in large part is by testing. And what I asked her was the most basic debate about testing, which is growth vs. proficiency. We all know that a fifth-grade teacher who takes a kid from a second-grade level of learning of reading, say, to a fourth-grade level of reading is a hero.  But if you measure by proficiency, that teacher is a goat. We know the importance of growth vs. proficiency. There isn’t a teacher in this country that doesn’t know. There isn’t a principal in this country who doesn’t know. There isn’t a superintendent who doesn’t know…. This was one of the most embarrassing, it’s the most embarrassing hearing I’ve ever attended. This woman has less knowledge about public education than almost any one who has any interest at all in education. Yes, she’s been involved in education but it’s been about her ideology.”

Although Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican, voted yesterday to send the DeVos nomination forward for a vote by the full Senate, Collins voiced strong reservations according to a second report by Valerie Strauss: “Like all of us, Mrs. DeVos is the product of her experience. She appears to view education through the lens of her experience in promoting alternatives to public education in Detroit and other cities…. Nevertheless her concentration on charter schools and vouchers raises the question of whether or not she fully appreciates that the secretary of education’s primary focus must be on helping states and communities, parents, teachers, school board members and administrators strengthen our public schools… There remain other questions about Mrs. DeVos’s knowledge of certain education laws. While it is unrealistic and unfair to expect a nominee to know all of the details of such programs, I was surprised and concerned about Mrs. DeVos’ apparent lack of familiarity with the landmark 1975 law, IDEA, that guarantees a free and appropriate education for children with special needs. Therefore, I will continue to evaluate this nomination before it comes to the floor, even as I vote today to advance it so that all of our colleagues have the opportunity to assess the nominee.”

As she voted with Collins to forward the nomination to the full Senate, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, also a Republican declared: “This nomination is very difficult for me.” Murkowski again described Alaska’s public schools—many in isolated and remote rural areas—the center of the children’s lives and the center of communities.  The NY Times quotes Murkowski: “She has not yet earned my full support. Betsy DeVos must show all of us that she truly understands children of all America, of rural, of urban, who are not able to access an alternative choice in education.”  Reflecting the depth of her concern about the candidate, Murkowski is quoted by Valerie Strauss as saying: “I will show the same respect, the same deference to President Trump’s nominee as I did President Obama’s. And I will vote to report Mrs. DeVos’s nomination to the full Senate. But do know that she has not yet earned my full support.”  In the short video clip provided by Strauss, Murkowski adds: “And when each of us has the opportunity to vote “aye” or “nay” on the floor, I would not advise that she can yet count on my vote.”

Please: Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have expressed doubts about the DeVos nomination. It is entirely possible they will vote against her confirmation. Assuming that all Democrats vote against her confirmation, there are only three total Republican votes needed to defeat the nomination. Please call your Senators. Ask them to oppose Betsy DeVos’s confirmation when the full Senate votes.  Or if you prefer to write, you can do so on your Senators’ websites.  Or the Network for Public Education has a new action alert letter ready for you to use.  If you watched the hearing today, you undoubtedly noticed that Senators have been paying close attention to the number of “yea” or “nay” e-mails and phone calls they receive.

School Choice Undermines Urban School Districts

Proponents of school choice have dubbed this week School Choice Week.  In honor of  School Choice Week, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under the first George Bush and today the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, announced a new bill to provide a kind of federal school voucher program.

According to the NY Times,  Alexander’s bill would re-purpose $24 billion federal education dollars, 41 percent of all federal education spending.  Alexander’s bill  would allow states to choose “whether to give the lowest-income families the money as individual scholarships to pay for private school tuition, or to attend a pubic school outside the child’s traditional neighborhood zone, or a charter school.”

He claims the money would provide a voucher for 11 million low-income children with an average per-child grant of $2,100.  The NY Times explains, “Under Mr. Alexander’s bill, states would be allowed to opt in to the voucher program.  States could also continue to distribute federal funds to public schools rather than individual students.”  While there is little chance vouchers will be adopted by today’s U.S. Senate, the introduction of such a bill illustrates the dogged persistence of those who support this old, old idea.

Voucher programs have never been popular.  When proposed as ballot issues across the states, voucher plans have never been adopted by the voters.  Not ever.  The oldest voucher plans in Cleveland and in Milwaukee have neither significantly demonstrated higher academic achievement among their participants nor have they, as promised, improved the public systems in their respective cities through competition.  Voucher schools have not been well-regulated by their states. Voucher schools in Louisiana’s new program, for example, have been reported to teach religiously based creationism as though it were scientifically proven.

While vouchers are always proposed as so-called solutions for poor children said to be “trapped in failing public schools,” in many states a child is not required even to have attended a public school before receiving a voucher.  In states like Ohio, the vouchers have instead been a way for private and parochial school parents to receive scholarships to the schools their children were already attending.  A new report by StateImpact Indiana documents that during the initial two years of  Indiana’s relatively new voucher program, “income-eligible students had to have spent two semesters in public school” to be granted a voucher made up of funds taken from the state’s public school budget. But the rules keep being adjusted and the number of children who previously attended a public school continues to drop.  “Indiana will pay an estimated $81 million in private school tuition this year, up from $15.5 million in 2011-12.”

School choice programs are very often established by states in their poorest urban school districts. When asked her opinion about Senator Alexander’s proposed bill, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, identified the most serious repercussion for public school districts of school choice programs including vouchers:  “Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships have done a tremendous amount of harm in destabilizing already austerity-filled and under-resourced schools all throughout America.”

Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network, describes the same problem: parents and children left behind without any choices at all as their schools are abandoned by children considered desirable by charter schools or by children who can secure a voucher.  “Instead, the choice that most parents will be stuck with is whether they stay in their neighborhood school—as it is rapidly being de-funded to the private sector and gradually being depopulated of the children of the most well-to-do parents….”

Last fall, Moody’s Investor Service released a special report that confirms such worries; according to Moody’s, current school choice policies are driving some urban school districts into a fatal decline.  Moody’s worries about school choice in the form of charter schools.  Moody’s warns, according to Reuters, “one in 20 U.S. students attends a charter school…. But in 11 major cities, the percentage is much larger, ‘making charter schools a predominantly urban phenomenon.’”  Moody’s reports that in New Orleans, 80 percent of students attend a charter school, with 40 percent in Washington, D.C., and  over 20 percent in Albany, Cleveland, San Antonio, and St. Louis.

Two separate factors, Moody’s warns, combine to threaten the financial stability of these and other urban school districts: first the foreclosure crisis which has significantly reduced property tax revenues and diminished the number of children living in devastated urban neighborhoods and hence driven down the attendance numbers that determine state aid, and second the rush of children to charter schools, also diminishing per-pupil basic aid from the state to the school district.

According to a Washington Post commentary on the Moody’s study:  “…some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines.  It begins with people leaving the city or districts.  Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts.  The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students.  As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts.  Rinse, repeat….”