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Betsy DeVos Loves School Choice. But You Don’t See Much of It in ESSA Plans

By Alyson Klein — April 30, 2018 2 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a big cheerleader for school choice. And way before she came into office, states around the country were adopting tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and more.

So has all that translated into a big bonanza for school choice in states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans? Not really.

To be sure, ESSA isn’t a school choice law. School choice fans in Congress weren’t able to persuade their colleagues to include Title I portability in the law, which would have allowed federal funding to follow students to the public school of their choice.

However, the law does has some limited avenues for states to champion various types of school choice options. But only a handful of states are taking advantage of those opportunities, according to reviews of the plans by Education Week and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

School Improvement: At least 12 states say they want schools that are perennially low-performing to consider reopening as charter schools to boost student achievement. Those states are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

At least one state, Texas, has floated the possibility of opening new charter schools as a school improvement strategy.

And New Mexico is giving districts with low-performing schools the option of using choice itself as a turnaround strategy through charters, online classes, home schooling, and magnet schools.

In fact, the state recently told one low-performing school that it had to use this option in order to get about $2 million over three years in school improvement funding. The school had originally pitched a less-dramatic turnaround plan, but the state’s Public Education Department wasn’t sure it went far enough to reverse long-standing poor performance.

Now the school will “have to develop a new plan about how they are going to champion and provide choice,” Christopher Ruszkowski, New Mexico’s education secretary.

Parents and family members, he said, will get to come to a school expo to learn about other options in the district. The school will remain open at least for the next couple of years. And the plan includes both a path to close the school, and one to keep it open.

Public School Transfers: At least three states—New York, New Mexico, and Louisiana—require districts to offer students in very low-performing schools the chance to transfer to a better-performing school. New York, though, makes it clear that it has some misgivings about this option. The Empire State’s plan argues that students in low-performing schools didn’t always have a better-performing school to transfer to, and that public school choice can lead to greater segregation and inequity.

Direct Student Services: ESSA allows states to set aside up to 3 percent of their Title I money for activities like tutoring, dual enrollment, Advanced Placement course fees, transportation for public school choice, and more. At least two states—Louisiana and New Mexico—are planning to take this option.

Want more? Check out this story unpacking how choice figures into ESSA plans. And don’t miss our online ESSA summit, happening Tuesday, May 1, from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Register for free here.

Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information: