Betsy DeVos: So How’s She Doing?

Six months in, several writers have set out to remind us who Betsy DeVos is and to consider where the U.S. Department of Education stands under her leadership.

Writing in the U.K. for The Guardian, David Smith recalls: “(I)t is DeVos, America’s 11th education secretary, who is viewed by many… as its most dangerous and destructive since the post was created by Jimmy Carter in 1979. DeVos, a devout Christian, stands accused of quietly privatising schools, rescinding discrimination guidelines and neutering her own civil rights office… DeVos—who once called traditional public school districts a ‘dead end’—is accused of defunding and destabilising public education in Michigan by bankrolling school choice initiatives.  Now… she is trying to apply the same ideas to the nation, championing privately run, publicly funded charter schools and voucher programmes that enable families to take tax dollars from the public education system to the private sector.”

And, in a sparkling New York Magazine profile, Lisa Miller sums up the impact of Betsy DeVos and her family—longtime far-right activists and philanthropists behind right-wing causes. First there is the family’s role in Michigan education politics: “Detroit now has a greater percentage of kids in charters than any city in the country except New Orleans. Eighty percent of those charters are for-profit. The number of charter schools is growing while the number of students in Detroit continues to shrink, so schools pursue kids like retailers on sale days, with radio ads and flyers and promises of high-end gifts. Still, only 10 percent of Detroit’s graduating seniors are reading at a college level, and the charter schools perform better than or as well as the district schools only about half the time.  When last summer a bipartisan group of concerned Detroiters tried to introduce some accountability and performance standards to the system, GLEP stepped in and killed the measure.” GLEP is the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-privatization lobbying group founded and funded by Betsy and Dick DeVos.

Miller neatly captures who Betsy DeVos is: “Trump has hired other oligarchs to run his federal agencies, and he has staffed the Executive branch with people who, like DeVos, might have been called ‘lobbyists’ in former lives. But DeVos is a hybrid of the two.  Fortified by great wealth and strong religion in the shelter of a monochromatic community, she has throughout her life single-mindedly used that wealth to advance her educational agenda… She was raised to believe she knew exactly what was right.  And for decades, this certainty has propelled her ever forward, always with her singular goal in mind. But what’s right in the bubble in which she has always lived doesn’t translate on YouTube, or in Cabinet meetings, or on the battlefield of public schools, where stakeholders have been waging vengeful politics for years. This is what those advocates who had admired the zeal she brought to their cause didn’t have the foresight to grasp. Out of Michigan, without her checkbook, DeVos is like a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”  Miller writes that Betsy DeVos’s long-time friends and allies—Campbell Brown, Jeb Bush, Eva Moskowitz—“have gone quiet, evading the opportunity to offer further praise.”

Examining DeVos’s record earlier this month, this blog concluded that DeVos has accomplished far less than everyone feared, although there is cause for concern that DeVos is quietly neutralizing the department’s Office of Civil Rights and delaying rules to protect college students who have taken out loans to attend unscrupulous for-profit colleges. But as far as privatization of  K-12 school education goes? Not much progress. Reporters who cover these issues in-depth seem to agree with this assessment.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s top reporter following federal policy describes a federal department that has struggled since DeVos took over: “(M)any in the education community were terrified the billionaire school choice advocate would quickly use her new perch to privatize education and run roughshod over traditional public schools. Maybe they shouldn’t have been quite so worried. Nearly six months into her new job, a politically hamstrung DeVos is having a tough time getting her agenda off the ground.”

Klein notes that a House budget bill neglects to fund the very dangerous idea of making Title I portable, a hot issue ultimately rejected by Congress when the federal education law was reauthorized in 2015: “Earlier this month, the House panel charged with overseeing education funding snubbed DeVos’s most important asks so far: using an education research program to push school vouchers, and allowing Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice.”

And, Klein reports, “DeVos may not have better luck on the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the education chairman said.  ‘Not all Republicans support federal dollars for vouchers… I think school choice advocates, and I’m one of them, have made a lot more progress state-by-state and community-by-community than in Washington  I think it’s more difficult here.'”

What about tuition tax credits, the other form of vouchers DeVos has extolled?  Klein explains: “The Trump administration has also hinted that it will pitch a federal tax credit scholarship, which would allow individuals and corporations to get a tax break for donating to scholarship-granting organizations. But that plan, which could be attached to a broader effort at overhauling the tax code, has yet to be rolled out. And time is running short to get it over the finish line this year… One potential stumbling block to getting a tax credit initiative off the runway: There aren’t yet enough top-level political appointees at the agency to think through the policy and sell it on Capitol Hill. DeVos remains the only official at the department who has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.”

Michael Stratford at POLITICO describes the staffing delay: “EDUCATION DEPARTMENT HIRING HITS A WALL: The task of staffing the Education Department with fresh political faces appears to have hit a wall. Dozens of individuals have dropped out, frustrated by the drawn-out, rigorous hiring process. Those in the pipeline are wondering what’s taking so long. And fewer folks are throwing their hats in the ring, doubting whether the Trump administration’s pledge to dramatically expand private school choice options for working class families will ultimately go anywhere… A lack of senior political hires has failed to attract other talent, compounding the problem…. And the political hires now at the Education Department have way too much on their plate. President Donald Trump has only formally nominated two individuals for politically appointed, Senate-confirmable positions…”

Stratford draws this conclusion: “Amid the chaos, the Hill doesn’t seem interested in funding the president’s school choice budget proposals and it’s unclear if the White House will get behind a plan to expand private school choice through tax reform—a huge lift for Congress and the administration.  Folks who support private school choice are ‘increasingly pessimistic’… (a) source said. ‘There still seems to be people in the pipeline that could get through. But it seems like no one new is getting in line.'”

Does this mean that advocates for strengthening the public schools can let up?  Not at all.  As long as Betsy DeVos remains unpopular with the public and with members of Congress, it will be harder for her to undermine public education. It is our job to continue—relentlessly—to define the importance of the public schools, which are required by law to serve all children, meet their particular needs, and protect their rights. We must also take Sen. Lamar Alexander’s observation seriously: vouchers and tuition tax credits have had more success in state legislatures than in Congress. ALEC model laws are being introduced in statehouses across the country and must be carefully tracked and opposed.

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Trump’s Proposed 2018 Budget for K-12 Education: What It Means

Yesterday the Trump administration released what’s being called its “skinny” budget.  A president’s budget proposal does NOT work like an executive order, however.  It is merely a declaration of the president’s priorities, and it must be discussed and enacted by Congress, which then appropriates the money.

And this is a budget that outlines only what is called “discretionary” spending. That is the part that actually gets appropriated every year, and it is a very small part of the federal budget, which mostly goes to “mandatory” programs, another term for entitlements.

A large part of discretionary spending is for the military. And the military is definitely a priority of Donald Trump’s.  Yesterday’s budget proposal adds $52 billion to the military and a 7 percent increase for the Department of Homeland Security and a 6 percent increase for Veterans Affairs.

VOX explains the nature of “non-defense” federal discretionary spending: “This is the main budget area that invests in the nation’s future productivity, supporting education, basic research, job training and infrastructure.  It also supports priorities such as providing housing and child care assistance to low-and moderate-income families, protecting against infectious diseases, enforcing laws that protect workers and consumers, and caring for national parks and other public lands.” Yesterday’s budget cuts non-defense discretionary spending in order for the federal government to ask for large increases in the military and homeland security.

Here are just some of the percentage losses reported by the NY Times for departments whose programs are likely directly to affect children and families: Education, -14 percent; Health and Human Services, -16 percent; and Housing and Urban Development, -12 percent.  The cuts are likely to affect public housing and subsidies for housing vouchers, may affect support for homeless shelters, and will eliminate after-school programs.  Being erased altogether are the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps very poor people pay gas bills in the winter and the Legal Services Corporation. School lunch, school breakfast and summer feeding programs have been made into mandatory spending and are not covered by this budget. We’ll have to watch for a later, more detailed budget to observe these programs, and we can hope they will be spared. The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is slightly reduced from $6.4 billion to $6.2 billion in Trump’s proposed budget. There are also significant cuts to health programs and much debate currently about the future of the Affordable Care Act.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal reporter explains that Trump proposes to cut the federal education budget significantly and also to shift money around to expand school choice (support for privatization): “President Donald Trump’s first budget seeks to slash the Education Department’s roughly $68 billion budget by $9 billion, or 13 percent in the coming fiscal year, whacking popular programs that help districts offer after-school programs, and hire and train teachers.  At the same time, it seeks a historic $1.4 billion federal investment in school choice, including new money for private school vouchers and charter schools, as well as directing $1 billion to follow students to the school of their choice.”

How does Trump seek to expand school choice?  Klein explains that the federal Charter Schools Program, which now has a $333 million budget would be expanded with an additional $168 million. You may remember that this program has been condemned for poor oversight on several occasions by the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General.  In the budget proposal, Trump also proposes to add $250 million for what Klein describes as a “private school choice initiative that could provide vouchers for use at private schools, including religious schools.”

Trump also brings back the idea of “Title I Portability” in this budget proposal. According to Klein, “As part of the school choice push, the budget would include a $1 billion increase for Title I grants for disadvantaged students, currently funded at nearly $15 billion.”  Sounds wonderful so far, as Title I has long been under-funded, but Klein continues: “But that money would come with a twist: States and districts would be encouraged to use the funds for a system of ‘student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and Local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice.'”  This is a public, not a private school voucher program.

There are, however, several problems with the Title I Portability program described here.

One is that, as Klein describes it, students would carry not only federal and state dollars if they transfer to another public school district through some sort of open enrollment program, but they would also carry local dollars from one school district to another.  Klein explains that the proposal for Title I Portability, “could be aided by a new pilot program created under ESSA that allows up to 50 districts to adopt a ‘weighted student funding formula’, combining federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students.  English language learners, kids in poverty, students in special education—who cost more to educate—would carry with them more money than other students.”

The second problem is that the idea of Title I Portability undermines the purpose of Title I, as it was designed in the original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to provide supplementary funding for school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty. This is a big problem in our society that is becoming more segregated economically. Under Trump’s proposal, if a poor student were to transfer to a wealthier public school district, that child would carry her funding, including the extra Title I money.  The poor district, still in need of help because it is serving a mass of students in poverty, including students who are part of the county’s foster care system and very likely a significant homeless population, would lose the Title I dollars intended to help schools serving many very poor students.

It is important to add here that Title I Portability is a proposal pushed hard by the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander, during the 2015 debate on the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Senator Alexander was unable to amass sufficient Congressional support to pass Title I Portability in 2015.  Remember that Trump’s budget proposal cannot be accomplished by him and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos.  It must be approved and appropriated by Congress.  Emma Brown in her Washington Post budget report explains, “That policy, known as ‘portability,’ was rejected in the Republican-led Senate during deliberations over the main K-12 education law in 2015.  Many Democrats see portability as the first step toward federal vouchers for private schools and argue that it would siphon dollars from schools with high poverty and profound needs to those in more affluent neighborhoods.”

Trump’s  proposed budget maintains funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at $13 billion, the 2017 amount; is silent on funding for the Office of Civil Rights, where many had expected to see cuts; reduces funding for two programs that promote college access; cuts support for preparing teachers and school leaders; and eliminates altogether the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provides before- and after-school and summer programs. On the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the budget document declares: “The program lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives such as improving student achievement,”  an assessment that assumes raising test scores is the sole goal of after-school programs and summer enrichment programs. Full service, wraparound Community Schools frequently incorporate 21st Century Learning Center funding as the way to pay for the after-school and summer enrichment programs that are essential for children’s development.

There is an important additional set of facts to remember as background for President Trump’s proposed budget.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reminds us: “This is the seventh year of austerity in non-defense appropriations, brought about by the multi-year appropriations caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and further reduced by ‘sequestration’ budget cuts under BCA. In 2017 the non-defense cap is frozen at the prior year’s level, and in 2018 it falls by $3 billion as enacted sequestration relief expires and full sequestration cuts take effect for the first time.  The 2018 cap is 16 percent below the comparable 2010 level when adjusted for inflation, and 21 percent below the 2010 level when adjusted for both inflation and population growth… Policy makers can alleviate the squeeze in 2018 and beyond by enacting legislation to reduce the sequestration cuts in those years and substitute alternative deficit-reduction measures—as they have done on a bipartisan basis for each year from 2013 through 2017.”

What this very technical analysis means is that Trump’s budget proposal which slashes next year’s non-defense discretionary spending is not the first time spending has been reduced in recent years. If Congress eventually passes a budget with the kind of cuts Trump outlines in the document released yesterday, the new budget reductions will deepen the cutbacks we have already been experiencing as Congress has prioritized reducing the deficit over programs that support our citizens.

Debate on NCLB Reauthorization Dies on House Floor Late Friday; No Vote Taken

The bill—passed out of committee in mid-February and considered on the floor of  the U.S. House of Representatives last Friday—to launch a long-overdue reauthorization of the federal education law was not a good bill.  I certainly did not support it.  But there was widespread belief that the bill, ushered through the committee process by John Kline (R-MN) would be affirmed by a House of Representatives dominated by Kline’s own Republican Party.  However, late on Friday afternoon after two days of debate, House leaders indefinitely postponed a vote, admitting they did not have the support needed to pass the version Kline and his committee had brought forward.

The bill’s purpose is to reauthorize the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  While ESEA is supposed to be reauthorized every five years, the current version, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law in 2002.

“In a political embarrassment for Republicans,” writes Kimberly Hefling for the Associated Press, “House GOP leaders on Friday abruptly cancelled a vote on a bill to update the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind education law after struggling to find support from conservatives.”

It would be reassuring if what people expected to be consensus had fallen apart over the parts of the bill that would undermine the original purpose of ESEA—the centerpiece of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, but strong support remained among House conservatives for several provisions that would undermine the federal role in education of promoting equity.  Consensus remained about several parts of the House version, for example, that would further undermine opportunity for poor children, especially those in urban school districts. No one questioned a provision in the proposed bill called “Title I Portability,” which would threaten the purpose of the Title I formula, which targets federal funding to school districts where family poverty is concentrated—the school districts that must meet the extraordinary needs of masses of children whose economic needs dominate their lives.  Strong support also remained for freezing  federal funding for education. The national advocacy organization, the Committee on Education Funding, warns that the House version, “would freeze funding in the aggregate for programs authorized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through the 2021-2022 school year. HR 5 freezes the aggregate ESEA authorization level for Fiscal Year 2016 and for each of the succeeding five years (that would be covered by a 2015, five-year reauthorization of NCLB) at the aggregate FY 2016 appropriated level of $23.30 billion.  Not only will this prevent needed investments for critical programs for the next six years, but it cuts funding below the FY 2012 pre-sequester level of $24.11 billion (a cut of 3.36 percent).”

Nobody expected to see civil rights protections or generous school funding in a bill coming from today’s extremely conservative House of Representatives, however.  A similar bill sponsored by John Kline when Congress tried in 2013 to reauthorize ESEA/NCLB passed the House but with not one vote in favor from a Democrat. And when this year’s bill was passed out of the House Education and Workforce Committee, it had no Democratic votes in favor

So what divided House Republicans and prevented Kline’s bill from moving forward for a vote?  Hefling describes, “opposition to the Obama administration’s encouragement of the Common Core state standards.”  She explains that the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth strongly urged members to oppose the bill.  Lyndsey Layton of the Washington Post quotes Lindsey Burke, a lobbyist from the Heritage Foundation, promoting states’ rights and an erasure of the federal role in education: “This proposal spends nearly as much as No Child Left Behind, is nearly as long in page length and fails to give states an option to opt out of the law.  As it stands, it’s a huge missed opportunity to restore state and local control of education.” Maggie Severns of Politico Pro also notes the role of far-right lobbying: “An amendment pushed by Heritage Action that would allow states to opt out of the law’s requirements altogether but still receive federal funds was left on the cutting room floor when the bill went through the House Rules Committee.  Heritage and The Club for Growth both strongly opposed the bill.”  Many conservative House members were also apparently upset that private school Title I vouchers were not added to the bill.

Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s federal policy reporter, speculates that the disintegration of support for the House Republican bill portends that Congress will not be able to reauthorize ESEA until after the 2016 election: “It’s possible that Kline and other leaders will find the votes to pass the bill next week—but if they don’t, the bid to update the NCLB law this year could be in serious trouble… If efforts to rewrite the law falter, it would mean that states would have to continue to live under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s stop-gap solution: A series of (increasingly unpopular) waivers from parts of NCLB law, which call for states to adopt certain education reform priorities (like high standards) in order to get flexibility from some of the law’s mandates…”

Passage of an ESEA reauthorization remained problematic even prior to the collapse of support from House conservatives on Friday.  Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of that chamber’s Health,Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is working with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) to craft a bipartisan bill in the Senate. One wonders how House and Senate versions could have been reconciled. And prior to Friday, President Barack Obama had threatened to veto any bill that contains the provisions that were the centerpiece of the House version: Title I portability that undermines the targeting of federal funds for school districts serving children in concentrated poverty and the limitations that would freeze federal education funding for at least five years (until another reauthorization) at a level below what President Obama has asked for in a Fiscal Year 2016 federal budget proposal.

House Vote on ESEA (NCLB) Reauthorization Likely by Friday

It looks as though by this coming Friday, February 27, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives is likely to vote on its (extremely partisan) version of a reauthorization of the federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent 2002 version we call No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  At least that is the prediction of Lauren Camera, the reporter who is covering the Congressional debate about the pending reauthorization for Education Week.  Camera explains: “A new schedule laid out (last) Thursday afternoon would send the Republican-backed bill, which the education committee passed on a party-line vote February 11, to the floor for debate Wednesday and Thursday, with a final vote scheduled for Friday morning.”  The House version of the reauthorization is being called the Student Success Act.

There are some pretty damaging things in this bill, but there is no cause for panic, yet anyway.  Partisan divides on many of the issues covered by the huge NCLB have prevented any kind of consensus in Congress for years now.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is supposed to be reauthorized and updated every five years, and Congress has dabbled with attempts to agree on a plan several times since the reauthorization was due in 2007.  There has, however, been no agreement.

Any bill that is passed by the House would have to be reconciled in a conference committee with whatever might come out of the Senate, and while the Senate is now also dominated by Republicans, there will still likely some significant differences between House and Senate versions.  Then, of course, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, could veto the bill if it is so extreme that it violates his core principles.  If Congress were to turn the already dangerous provision of Title I portability into a private school voucher plan, for example, it is likely the President would veto the reauthorization.

So what is in the bill the House will be voting on this Friday?

Accountability and Annual Standardized Testing:  Lindsey Layton of the Washington Post explains: “Under the bill, schools would have to measure student academic progress and report it by subgroup—race, family income, whether students are English-language learners or have disabilities—and issue annual report cards.”  BUT “States would not be required to meet any particular benchmarks for academic achievement.  They would have to intervene in high-poverty schools that are not improving by their measures but the type of intervention and the number of schools would be up to the states, which would not be required to evaluate teachers.”  House Republicans are trying to weaken the federal arm carrying heavy sanctions and punishments, but the House will likely leave the annual testing in place.

Title I Portability:   This provision undermines the original purpose of the federal role in education: to add compensatory funding in schools and school districts where family poverty is highly concentrated but where no state is doing enough to equalize opportunity.  Under the House bill due for a vote this week, poor children would receive federal Title I funds to support their education, but they could carry that funding to any public school they might attend.  If a family moved, for example, from a poor urban school district to a wealthy suburban district, the student would bring along a flat, per-child, Title I amount.  The problem with Title I portability is that in districts where poverty is concentrated, the poverty of the mass of children challenges the capacity of schools to provide adequate supports and services.  Title I portability would undermine targeting built into the Title I formula that weights support according to the concentration of poverty.  Here is how Washington Post reporter Lindsey Layton describes the effect: “For example, Phoenix public schools have a poverty rate of 61.4 percent.  The school system receives $8.5 million in federal Title I funds.  Under the House committee plan, the school district would receive $3.8 million less, a nearly 45 percent drop in federal funds, according to the U.S. Department of Education.”

Many people are predicting a proposed amendment on the House floor that would permit poor children to carry portable Title I funding not only to other public schools but also to private schools—a Title I private school voucher program.  If such a proposal were to be included in a final Congressional version of a reauthorization, many speculate that President Obama would veto the bill.  No one is sure whether or not the President would veto a Congressional bill that included only public school Title I portability.

Funding:  The issues become clearer if one contrasts the provisions in the House version of the reauthorization with the proposals in President Obama’s FY2016 federal budget, released early in February.  Lauren Camera has explained in Education Week that the President’s proposed FY 2016 budget includes a significant increase for programs in the Department of Education: “Under the request, the Education Department would be funded to the tune of $70.7 billion, a 5.4 percent, $3.6 billion hike over current appropriation levels… This year’s request… seeks major increases for some… formula grants.  Title I would see a $1 billion hike to $15.4 billion; IDEA would get a modest increase of $175 million, bringing the program to $11.7 billion; and English-Language Acquisition grants, which haven’t seen an increase in years would receive a $135 million boost to nearly $775 million.” “Financial-aid programs, including Pell Grants, which help low-income students afford college, make up the single largest funding category in President Barack Obama’s $70.7 billion discretionary budget….”

By contrast, the NCLB reauthorization bill coming to the House floor on Friday from the Education and Workforce Committee includes funding limitations.  The bill would freeze the portion of the federal education budget that pays for the programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at a dangerously low level, and far below the President’s proposed FY 16 budget.  The national advocacy organization, the Committee on Education Funding,  warns: “HR 5 (House Resolution 5 is the bill’s number.)… would freeze funding in the aggregate for programs authorized in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through the 2021-2022 school year. HR 5 freezes the aggregate ESEA authorization level for Fiscal Year 2016 and for each of the succeeding five years (that would be covered by a 2015, five-year reauthorization of NCLB) at the aggregate FY 2016 appropriated level of $23.30 billion.  Not only will this prevent needed investments for critical programs for the next six years, but it cuts funding below the FY 2012 pre-sequester level of $24.11 billion (a cut of 3.36 percent).”

The dangerous funding freeze for programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that the House will be considering this week can also be seen as a warning about the likely reception, when Congress considers the President’s proposed FY 2016 budget, of proposed increases for the broad range of programs of the U.S. Department of Education in FY 2016.