A year after lambasting states’ plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos struck a much gentler tone in speaking to state chiefs Monday.
She avoided talking about the administration’s plan to cut $7.1 billion from the Education Department’s budget, including funding for after-school programs and teacher training, and instead emphasized new proposals to expand school choice and offer teachers more say over their own professional development.
And she told the chiefs she’d be happy to approve changes to their ESSA plans aimed at increasing student achievement, but would look less kindly on requests to push off deadlines in the law.
“Anything that is going to ultimately result in greater student achievement is going to be seen very favorably by the Department of Education,” said DeVos at the Council of Chief State School Officers annual legislative conference. “On the other end of the spectrum, if it’s a request to obfuscate or put off something that you should be doing today for students, that will not be as well-received.”
She encouraged states to take advantage of the law’s flexibilities, including the chance to try out new kinds of tests through the law’s Innovative Assessment pilot. So far, just two states are using that leeway: Louisiana and New Hampshire.
She urged states to get their districts interested in the law’s weighted student funding pilot. That pilot allows districts to combine federal, state, and local dollars so that vulnerable groups of students (like English-language learners) receive more money. So far, just six districts have applied for it.
In response to a question about the teacher shortage from Christina Kishimoto, Hawaii’s state chief, DeVossaid that part of the reason there isn’t a huge pipeline of teachers is that the profession has “gotten a bad beating over the years.” She suggested states take steps to offer advancement to effective teachers and find ways to help teachers who “may be better in a different profession to find that profession more quickly.”
The secretary touted the administration’s budget proposal to offer $200 million in stipends or vouchers to individual teachers, which could be used to cover the cost of the professional development opportunities they think would be most useful.
She also took the opportunity to sell chiefs on the administration’s latest push for school choice: a $5 billion federal tax-credit scholarship program. Under the plan, individuals and corporations would get a tax break for donating to scholarship-granting organizations. States could choose to use the money for private school choice, but also after-school programs, early-childhood education, dual enrollment, and more.
That idea garnered some interest among chiefs, including from Molly Spearman, South Carolina’s superintendent of public instruction, who interviewed DeVos at CCSSO. The Palmetto State wants to offer career training centers for rural students, but funding for transportation is likely to be an issue. The scholarships may be able to help cover those costs, she said.
Other chiefs had questions about the proposal. Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, wondered whether private schools whose students received the scholarships would still be accountable to the state. He’s a fan of charters, he said, but not of “choice for choice’s sake.”
Rivera said the discussion felt different from what he had heard of last year’s approach. “It was a good dialogue. It was a very good dialogue,” he said.
Last year, Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota’s state superintendent, wrote an opinion piece for Education Week taking issue with DeVos’ contention that states hadn’t used ESSA for innovation.
This year, however, she said, she felt it was “very amicable. The tone was very collaborative. I think there is a better understanding, a growing understanding of each of our offices.”
U.S. Secretary of Education, speaks with Molly Spearman, South Carolina’s superintendent of education, at the Council of Chief State School Officers legislative conference in Washington.--Eric Kruszewski for Education Week
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