Transition Update: Washington

U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos waits for the arrival of President Donald Trump at a meeting of the National Governors Association last week at the White House.
U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos waits for the arrival of President Donald Trump at a meeting of the National Governors Association last week at the White House.
—Evan Vucci/AP
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DeVos Slammed for Calling HBCUs Choice 'Pioneers'

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called Historically Black Colleges and Universities "pioneers of school choice" in a statement after meeting with the leaders of some of those institutions at the White House last week—and set off a social-media firestorm.

"HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice," DeVos said after the session that she and President Donald Trump held with dozens of college presidents and chancellors of HBCUs. "They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish."

Those sentiments ignited social-media platforms, with numerous critics saying on Twitter that HBCUs were set up primarily because, as a result of segregation, many black students in the South and elsewhere didn't have a choice about where they went to school. In many cases, they were barred from attending public universities for white students.

A department official explained that DeVos' remarks were part of a brief statement and that she understands and respects that HBCUs were founded in the context of segregation. DeVos' statement also said she'd be looking to HBCUs for advice in "addressing the current inequities we face in education."

In a speech Feb. 28 to HBCU officials and advocates at the Library of Congress, a day after the White House meeting, DeVos emphasized that HBCUs grew out of educational segregation. She highlighted the story of Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded what became Bethune-Cookman University, saying Bethune recognized that traditional schools "systemically failed to provide African-Americans access to a quality education—or, sadly, more often to any education at all," according to prepared remarks.

"Bucking that status quo and providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of HBCUs," DeVos' prepared remarks say. "But your history was born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War."

—Alyson Klein

Education Secretary's Opponents Misfire in Squawk Over 'No Free Lunch' Comment

DeVos' critics also seized on a comment she made at the Conservative Political Action Conference Feb. 23 that she is "perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there's no such thing as a free lunch."

That one-line jab at the Vermont senator—who touted free public-college tuition for all as a Democratic candidate for president in 2016—morphed into false claims that DeVos had suggested eliminating free lunches in the National School Lunch Program as part of her speech.

Critics were quick to point out that millions of U.S. public school students actually do receive free lunches, and that many rely on those subsidized meals to make up for a deficit of nutrition at home.

But many of the criticisms of what DeVos supposedly said appear to have been based on inaccurate news reports.

"DeVos Could End Nutrition Program for Poor Kids," asserted a headline in the International Business Times, which said "DeVos, a staunch opponent of public schools, is taking over the nation's free-lunch program that provides nutrition to low-income students." That story was picked up by Yahoo! with the headline, "DeVos Questions If Schools Should Provide Free Lunch."

Neither report is true.

For one thing, DeVos never mentioned school lunches at CPAC. For another, the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program are under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Education. Trump has nominated former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to be his agriculture secretary.

It is true that the programs have faced scrutiny from lawmakers in recent years. It is true that some policy proposals may haverestricted the ability of some high-poverty schools to participate in a program that allows them to provide free lunches to all students with less red tape. And it is true that those discussions will likely continue in the future. But it's not true that DeVos will be at the center of those decisions.

Of course, DeVos was using an aphorism that dates back decades, at least, to speak more broadly about her approach to government, not meals. And it's worth debating how that broader view colors her approach to education policy. After all, more than half of America's students now qualify for free and reduced-price meals, a common marker of poverty, and schools will be stretched to meet their needs both inside and outside the classroom.

But it's also important to be accurate.

—Evie Blad

Senate Measure Introduced to Overturn Obama-Era ESSA Rules on Accountability

A measure to block the Obama administration's regulations governing accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act was introduced last week by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, and was pending at week's end. The House of Representatives approved a similar measure last month.

The measures are intended to end regulations finalized late last year that govern state plans and issues ranging from testing opt-outs to school turnarounds. In addition, not long after Trump was inaugurated in January, his administration paused the regulations.

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If the Senate passes Alexander's resolution, and Trump gives the thumbs-up, the Obama-era rules for accountability and state plans would have no force, an alarming prospect for Democrats in Congress and civil rights advocates, who say those regulations include crucial protections for disadvantaged students. Congressional Republicans and some school groups, however, have supported the move, arguing that state K-12 leaders and schools need more flexibility and that the Education Department can still provide nonregulatory guidance and technical assistance to states seeking more clarity or other help with accountability provisions of the law.

DeVos hasn't expressed a clear opinion about the regulations. But she did signal to states that they should consider themselves to be in the driver's seat as they finalize their plans for ESSA.

If Congress overturns these rules, the Education Department could take another crack at developing accountability rules for ESSA, but legally under the CRA it couldn't be substantially similar to what the Obama administration developed. What that means exactly is unclear, since there's no precedent for Congress overturning such rules for the main federal K-12 law.

—Andrew Ujifusa

Vol. 36, Issue 24, Page 15

Published in Print: March 8, 2017, as Transition Update: Washington
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