The U.S. Department of Education is moving forward with its proposal from a year ago to create vouchers for teachers to use for professional development—despite a previous congressional rebuke to the idea.
In its fiscal 2020 budget request early last year, the Education Department proposed using $200 million in the Education Innovation and Research fund to let teachers select training programs that they felt fit their individual needs.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said the proposal, which she’s championed several times publicly, would offer “much-needed freedom and flexibility for teachers” and respect their status as professionals.
Teachers are often “limited” in their own professional development, DeVos said in a statement last year. “They have little to no say in the courses they take,” she added. “They have very little freedom to explore subject areas that interest them.”
House Democrats vigorously objected to the idea, particularly because the department simultaneously proposed eliminating more than $2 billion in Title II aid that is intended to support educators’ professional development.
Stephanie Hirsch, the now-retired executive director of Learning Forward, a prominent organization that works to improve professional learning in schools, also criticized the proposal at the time, saying it would take educators “back to the old catalog-shopping days of professional development,” and that teachers “are not asking for a PD voucher program—they’re asking for time for collaborative learning and problem-solving with their colleagues.”
Subsequently, the House appropriations bill prohibited Education Innovation and Research money from being used for this idea. And the final fiscal 2020 appropriations bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump last December did not designate money for these proposed PD vouchers. That legislation provided $190 million to the EIR program.
But in budget documents published recently, the department says that, “Although this restriction was included in the House appropriations bill, it was not included in the Senate bill nor the final bill that was enacted into law. Therefore, the Department intends to use a portion of the funds available for the EIR program for projects that provide professional development vouchers.”
A spokeswoman for the Education Department said the department is “running the competition this year” for teacher PD vouchers, but declined to share details, such as how much of the EIR’s budget would go toward the program. It’s also unclear how teachers will be able to apply and how much they could receive.
The department might be working on these vouchers for this budget year. But in its fiscal 2021 budget request, the department wants to roll the EIR program into its big block grant that includes nearly 30 K-12 programs in total.
So in theory, if the Trump administration gets its way, the department would run this teacher PD voucher competition for just one year, fiscal 2020—although that block grant proposal faces a very steep uphill climb in Congress. (The department also wants to roll the Title II grants for educator development into the block grant.)
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chairwoman of the House subcommittee that oversees the Education Department’s budget, said in a statement that she was “disappointed to learn the Secretary is wasting taxpayer dollars on dubious approaches to teacher development.”
“Asking teachers to navigate an uncharted, unregulated teacher professional development market is unreasonable and unwise,” DeLauro said. “A better approach would be to provide school districts with resources to invest in high-quality, evidence-based professional development experiences.”
Advocates Raise Concerns
Advocates for professional learning have long held that a $200-million-or-so voucher program is no replacement for the $2.1 billion Title II grant program. But Melinda George, the chief policy officer of Learning Forward, said even if a voucher program is offered in addition to the Title II program, she has some concerns.
“I don’t think it’s the purpose of the EIR program,” George said. “When you start [putting] the administration’s priorities over field priorities, you’re defeating the purpose of EIR.”
Also, she pointed to the Every Student Succeeds Act, which defines professional development as “sustained (not stand-alone, 1-day, and short-term workshops), intensive, collaborative, job-embedded, data-driven, and classroom-focused.” A voucher program, which only some teachers will be able to participate in, does not align with that definition, George said.
Desmond Blackburn, the CEO of the New Teacher Center, said in a statement that using EIR funds to offer professional development vouchers “negates the program’s commitment to and value of research and evidence.” (The center received a $12.8 million grant last year from the EIR Expansion program to implement high-quality, standards-aligned instructional coaching.)
“Rather than providing educators the quality, consistent professional learning opportunities that we know to work, that are proven and evidence-based, a voucher leaves teachers to select from a catalogue of choices with unclear impact,” he said.
The department has reached out to Learning Forward for consultation, George said, and the organization expressed its concerns about ensuring quality PD through vouchers.
“[The department is] really trying to give teachers the freedom to choose professional learning—they don’t want the kind of scattershot professional development that currently exists,” George said. “Learning Forward would say, if you’re worried about scattershot, then you don’t want a select number of teachers using a little bit of money to try to figure out what they need.”
But as the language in the budget proposal shows, George said, “this is clearly the department moving forward, no matter what.”
One School’s Experience
For teachers, “the initial idea sounds exciting: ‘Yes, I’d love to have more say in my professional development,’” said Evan Stone, the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Educators for Excellence, a group that advocates for teacher leadership.
But in practice, he added, it’s more challenging: It puts a burden on teachers to go out and find high-quality professional development that aligns with their and their students’ needs. When Stone and a group of teachers met with DeVos, one teacher from Chicago told the secretary that her principal gave every teacher a personal budget for professional development—but the experiment didn’t go so well.
The teacher, Shifra Adler, wrote about her experience in an op-ed for the Hechinger Report. She said that at the end of the year, very few teachers had used their allotted money.
“The younger teachers had felt overwhelmed and didn’t know what opportunities were available, let alone which ones would be most beneficial,” Adler wrote. “The more experienced teachers felt swamped with their school and family responsibilities and so this opportunity largely fell off their radars. Not only did this leave unspent the money meant to improve our teaching, but it also left us alone and static in our practice.”
Stone said DeVos told Adler that the department would make sure quality professional development was available and that “we believe deeply in choice.”
Last year, EIR grant award winners included the state education departments for Alabama, Louisiana, and Rhode Island; IDEA Public Schools (a charter school network); code.org, which promotes computer science education; and the American Institutes for Research. And $78 million went specifically to initiatives in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), with 85 percent focused specifically on computer science. The Trump administration has prioritized STEM and computer science.
“Through the EIR program, grantees have the opportunity to rethink education and approach student learning in new ways. I’m excited to see states, school districts and nonprofits proposing more creativity, innovation, and personalization on behalf of students,” DeVos said in a statement announcing last year’s grants.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept. Developing Vouchers for Teacher PD