DeVos should be applauded, not demonized, for her work in education
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is one of President Trump’s longest-reigning cabinet members, having served in her post for more than 1,000 days. In large part because of her unwavering commitment to school choice, DeVos has sparked outrage from public unions since the moment she was nominated. Her road to confirmation was contentious, passing the U.S. Senate only because Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie. In 2017, when she tried to visit a public school in Washington, protestors blocked her entrance. During a speech at Harvard, students turned their backs to her and raised “white supremacist” banners — ironic, given her 30-year career of advocating and helping low-income, minority students to attend better schools.
Yet, while the teachers’ unions continue to vilify her and some in the media demonize her, DeVos has quietly built an impressive resume of rolling back federal government involvement in the classroom, promoting the expansion of school choice, and encouraging states to be innovative with their education policies.
The U.S. Department of Education should not have a significant say over K-12 policy — indeed, voters in Wisconsin overwhelmingly want more local control. DeVos has recognized this and took steps to remove the federal government from the classroom. For example, in December 2018, she rescinded President Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter on student discipline, which the Obama education department released in 2014, threatening federal action if discipline policies resulted in “disparate impact” on racial minorities. This letter coerced school districts to suspend fewer students. In Wisconsin, our analysis concluded that these softer discipline policies contributed to a 41 percent decrease in suspensions, which likely contributed to a decrease in proficiency rates in math and reading.
For the most part, DeVos has tried to give states as much power as possible in implementing K-12 policy. As she was being sworn in, the U.S. Department of Education was beginning to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the reauthorization of the federal education law signed by Obama with bipartisan support. This law governs the funds designated for K-12 schools and received by states and districts for public and private school students and teachers.
However, as President Obama was leaving office, his administration put into place regulations that limited states’ flexibility under ESSA. So when DeVos arrived, her first action was to pause these regulations to give states the opportunity to be more innovative and flexible with federal dollars than ever before. States such as Texas created competitive grant programs with federal dollars for low-performing school districts whose plans for improvement include innovative approaches — charter schools, for example — that serve students at underperforming schools.
Unfortunately, some states have failed to maximize this opportunity. Wisconsin continued to embrace status quo K-12 policies from now-Gov. Tony Evers. Despite being frustrated that many states are administering the bare minimum of ESSA’s opportunities, DeVos has worked to advance the ideal that states must determine how to use ESSA.
Furthermore, in a big win for private religious education, last March DeVos lifted the prohibition on religious organizations from accessing the federal dollars allocated under ESSA. Prior to this change, it was illegal under federal law for religious organizations to access funding directly. What this meant in practice is that private schools had to rely on public-school districts, or their hand-picked, third-party contractors, to provide services designated for private-school students. Now religious organizations can join the marketplace and provide these services.
DeVos also has found ways to encourage innovation in teaching through federal grant competitions. Recently, the Department of Education extended $123 million in grants for school districts, nonprofit organizations and education departments to rethink education methods and practices. For example, several of the grantees in states such as California, Washington and Massachusetts have been able to dedicate the funds to develop their computer science and coding classes.
Just last month, her administration also created an initiative to encourage educators to open and expand quality public charter schools in economically-distressed Opportunity Zone communities, where the federal government has provided tax credits to encourage investment. According to DeVos, “Access to high-quality, innovative education options is fundamental to the long-term success of not only students but also entire communities.”
DeVos’s reforms matter because decisions related to a public school’s discipline policies, funding allocation and curriculum are best made at the local and state level — not in D.C. States and local districts are better equipped to respond to their communities’ unique needs and — surprise, surprise — this leads to better educational outcomes than a one-size-fits-all mandate by the federal government.
Thanks to Betsy DeVos, the federal government is issuing fewer regulations, encouraging more innovation in classrooms and by states, while recognizing that the status quo isn’t good enough for America’s students. Her tenure unquestionably is moving K-12 education in the right direction.
Libby Sobic is director and legal counsel of education policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. She works on legal and policy issues related to K-12 education in Wisconsin.
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