By Erica L. Green
March 29, 2017
|Education Secretary Betsy DeVos answering questions from Russ Whitehurst|
of the Brookings Institution on Wednesday. Credit: Maria Danilova/AP
Betsy DeVos, in her first extended policy address as education secretary, argued on Wednesday for an expansion of school choice programs, pointing to lagging test scores and a program championed by the Obama administration that funneled billions into low-performing schools but failed to produce better academic outcomes.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution, which released a ranking of choice options in the country’s 100 largest school districts, Ms. DeVos made her case for choice policies that she said focused on the “individual child.”
And, she called for the rejection of an “us versus them mentality” when it comes to investing in programs, like charter schools and school vouchers, to which President Trump has proposed giving part of a $1.4 billion funding increase in the fiscal year that begins in October.
“Our nation’s commitment is to provide a quality education to every child to serve the greater public, common good,” Ms. DeVos said in her address. “Accordingly, we must shift the paradigm to think about education funding as investments made in individual children, not in institutions or buildings.”
While Ms. DeVos offered no new details about the Education Department’s budget — which in the president’s budget blueprint takes a $9 billion, or 13.5 percent, cut — she rejected the notion that money was a panacea for the challenges facing public schools.
She resurrected a report released by the Education Department in the final days of President Barack Obama’s administration, which showed that a program that funneled $7 billion into the nation’s worst-performing schools had little to no effect on academic results.
The report, which was issued in January and examined the impact of School Improvement Grants, found “no significant impacts” on “math or reading test scores, high school graduation or college enrollment of students.”
The grants were started under the George W. Bush administration, but received increased funding under the Obama administration in 2009.
“At what point do we accept the fact that throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution?” Ms. DeVos asked.
The Trump administration’s budget proposal includes $168 million in spending on charter schools and $250 million for providing families with vouchers to use at private schools. A $1 billion increase in Title 1 funding, which supports schools that serve high concentrations of low-income students, would be granted to districts that adopt policies considered trademarks of choice districts, like student-based budgeting and open enrollment.
Ms. DeVos offered no more details about how the new program would be structured, the size of individual vouchers or the families that would be eligible.
The administration’s plans have been derided by critics as potentially devastating for traditional public schools, which would lose students and money. The choice plan has especially drawn the ire of congressional Democrats, as well as Republicans who represent rural areas where alternatives to local schools are limited and where voters favor improvements to local public schools.
Ms. DeVos likened the opposition to the school choice movement to that of taxi companies that opposed ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft.
“Just as the traditional taxi system revolted against ride sharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice,” Ms. DeVos said. “In both cases, the entrenched status quo has resisted models that empower individuals.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a consistent critic of Ms. DeVos’s school choice ideology, took to Twitter to rebuke Ms. Devos’s ride-sharing analogy.
- As evidenced by this incredibly tone deaf & shocking quote, comparing “choice” schools to Uber: https://twitter.com/Joy_Resmovits/status/847087483535831041
- Is she equating kids to cab riders & teachers are drivers? Cab drivers are hard-working pros, but teachers have advanced degrees to teach
“Is she equating kids to cab riders & teachers are drivers?” Ms. Weingarten asked in her post. “Cab drivers are hard-working pros, but teachers have advanced degrees to teach.”
Ms. Weingarten also pointed out that Uber “is in turmoil.”
Ms. DeVos spoke at an event where Brookings highlighted districts that have strong infrastructures for choice. The research organization released its fifth annual Education Choice and Competition Index, which assigns a letter grade to 100 of the nation’s largest school districts based on the availability of school options, such as charters and private schools, or other vehicles, like voucher programs and open enrollment policies, for giving families access to schools beyond their neighborhoods.
Districts were also assessed on measures like how easily families could gain access to information about school options and performance.
Denver topped the list for its mixture of schools and its accessible application process, followed by the Recovery School District in New Orleans, an all-charter district. New York City ranked third.
Russ Whitehurst, a senior Brookings fellow, said that while school choice was thriving, a vast majority of students — 81 percent in the nation’s largest districts — are in traditional public schools. Mr. Whitehurst said the report was not intended to endorse school choice.
“Choice is merely the precondition for new systems of delivering education,” Mr. Whitehurst said, “not a guarantee of success of those systems relative to the traditional school district model.”
When pressed by Mr. Whitehurst on whether choice policies could potentially produce even worse academic outcomes, Ms. DeVos pointed to test scores on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), which she said have shown little progress.
“I’m not sure how they could get a lot worse on a nationwide basis than they are today,” she said.