3 Things to Watch for in DeVos’ Speech to ALEC

By Arianna Prothero — July 19, 2017 4 min read
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President Trump’s arguably most polarizing cabinet secretary is speaking to members of an equally controversial group on Thursday.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is scheduled to address the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, during lunch at its annual meeting being held this year in Denver. ALEC is a conservative group of policymakers and industry leaders that drafts model legislation for Republican lawmakers to take back to their states.

As I recently explained in another story, DeVos’ and ALEC’s education priorities dovetail almost perfectly. Both are big advocates for school choice, in particular, private school choice such as voucher programs.

Why Betsy DeVos and ALEC are Natural Allies on School Choice

The last time DeVos spoke to a pro-school choice crowd of this magnitude was at the largest annual gathering of charter school leaders last month. There, she warned attendees that by creating too many accountability hoops to jump through—such as “500-page charter school applications"—they were in danger of become the new education establishment.

So, will she have a similar message for state lawmakers and advocacy groups at ALEC? And will she talk about any education-related issues besides school choice?

Here are three things to watch for in DeVos’ speech:

Will DeVos Discuss Accountability for Charter Schools and Private Schools?

There’s a big debate going on in the school choice movement right now over accountability. Specifically, whether government should play a bigger role in holding charter and private schools that accept public money accountable for improving student academic outcomes. For a long time, the belief was—and continues to be for many school choice advocates—that parents alone (or mostly alone) can hold schools accountable through the choices they make.

“ALEC is on the light-touch side of that debate. I’ll be watching to see if she comes out and plants her flag on that side as well—she’s given some mixed signals,” said Michael Petrilli, the president of the Fordham Institute.

“When she spoke to the charter conference, it sounded like she sided with the libertarian side. ALEC has been more focused on private school choice than charters. So, what does she say about that?” he said.

Will DeVos Dump the ‘Schools Are Failing” Line?

But focusing on “bureaucratic bloat” in charter schools and private school choice programs could be a good way for DeVos to strike a more conciliatory tone, said Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“I think any time she can talk about choice not in terms of schools stink, schools are failing, we’ve got to give kids a lifeboat, but anytime she’s saying, ‘look, a lot of Americans like their schools, but we ought to give families more opportunities to find the right school for their kids ... that we ought to worry about bureaucracy which gets in the way of families and educators,” said Hess. “I think when she’s talking about that stuff, she’s best positioned to connect school choice and her issues to the real lives of parents and educators.”

Will DeVos Go Beyond School Choice?

Unquestionably, school choice is DeVos’ favorite topic when it comes to education policy. Prior to becoming education secretary, she was an influential advocate and philanthropic backer of school choice. And she’s been criticized both before and after her nomination for being too hyper-focused on the issue.

“It will be interesting to see if she gives a broader policy speech. These people [at ALEC] have a big impact on higher education,” said Petrilli. “If I were writing this speech, you would want it to be about school choice, but also on accountability and keeping the pressure up on the teachers’ unions.”

Petrilli also said the forum will give DeVos an opportunity to speak directly to Republican state lawmakers on implementation of the relatively new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. The Education Department is in the middle of evaluating state’s ESSA plans, and so this is a big deal for both federal and state education officials. Some states have felt that the Department’s ESSA feedback has been too heavy handed, a criticism shared by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education panel.

DeVos could also use this chance to broaden her critique of the charter sector over-regulating schools.

“She might say, ‘look what we need to be concerned about, is not just paperwork, but if these things drive educators and families crazy, just think how much more they frustrate teachers and families in traditional district schools,’ ” said Hess. “We can’t just be about choice, it’s got to be about doing right for families and educators in every kind of school.”

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Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addresses the Council of the Great City Schools Annual Legislative Policy Conference in Washington on March 13. —Jose Luis Magana/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.