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Betsy DeVos Urges States to Take Reins on K-12 Policy

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — July 20, 2017 4 min read
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At a conference of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos encouraged states to take the lead in creating new, more-flexible education policies and pledged that the U.S. Department of Education would focus on clearing away regulations and obstacles to state autonomy.

Along the way, DeVos criticized the American Federation of Teachers and the previous administration’s Education Department, which she said had issued inappropriate regulations. She also put in a strong plug for her signature issue of school choice—but said that the federal government would not mandate a particular approach.

“States are best equipped to solve the unique problems each of them faces,” she said to an audience of state legislators, lobbyists, representatives from private companies, and other members of ALEC, which prepares model legislation and policies. “My job is to get the federal government out of the way so you can do your jobs.”

School Choice

DeVos said that school choice is gaining momentum around the country. She applauded state governors and legislators who had pushed for school choice programs such as vouchers and education savings accounts, or ESAs. She mentioned programs in Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and Arizona and noted that some 40 state legislative chambers have passed choice-related bills so far this year.

“The next reforms won’t originate from Washington, D.C.,” she said. “They’ll come from you.”

She also said that her support for educational options “isn’t against public schools ... it’s about recognizing the parent’s right to choose what’s right for their children” and “expanding human liberty in America.”

She said that states should choose which school choice programs to adopt: “Overreach in the previous administration shouldn’t be countered by overreach in this administration,” she said. But she encouraged states to “work with governors and legislators to pursue the path of giving parents more choices.” She said she suspected that states with more robust choice programs would see better results.

She told state legislators that they shouldn’t fear losing their seats for promoting choice, “despite [teachers] unions’ not-so-veiled threats and millions of dollars.”

DeVos pulled up a tweet from the American Federation of Teachers in which the union said that the public should invest in a system of great schools, rather than in individual students.

“I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but I admire their candor,” she said. “They admit they care more about a system...created in the 1800s than individual students ... and they are totally wrong.”

Weingarten, meanwhile, shot back at DeVos in her own speech Thursday. She called DeVos’ school choice proposals “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.” To make her case, she cited a recent report by the Center on American Progress that highlighted vouchers’ Jim Crowe era roots.

ESSA and regulations

DeVos said that her department was reviewing regulations put in place by the Obama administration’s Education Department and described several, particularly in the area of higher education, as examples of overreach. “They issued regulations that were a far cry from what Congress intended,” she said.

She said that her department encouraged state leaders to take advantage of flexibilities offered them in the Every Student Succeeds Act and “break away from the compliance mentality” that she said was too common in education. She said her department is “looking forward to reviewing and ultimately approving every [ESSA] plan that meets the law.”

DeVos said she challenged states to extend that same flexibility to their districts, principals and schools: “Teachers are on the front lines and they know how to meet the needs of students. Too often their voices aren’t heard.”

State leaders though, are still trying to make sense of just what “flexibility” means in the eyes of the Trump administration. DeVos has pushed local control hard rhetorically. But her department’s early feedback to states on their ESSA plans has been perceived as heavy-handed and inconsistent. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the education committee, has even said it shows that DeVos’ team hasn’t read the law closely.

Common Ground

DeVos’ presence in Denver drew protests: On Wednesday, a crowd of protesters gathered in Denver outside the Hyatt Regency where the conference was being held, holding signs criticizing both ALEC and DeVos.

But at ALEC’s conference, DeVos was speaking to a sympathetic audience, and she emphasized their common ground. “I’m no stranger to protests, but I think this is the first time I’ve been to an event where the protesters aren’t necessarily here just for me,” she said.

DeVos said that ALEC should take the protests as a compliment: “They only protest those capable of implementing real change.”

ESSA Discussion

DeVos’ remarks were followed by a panel moderated by former U. S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, featuring legislators from Colorado, Kentucky, and Arizona. The legislators spoke about how they were using their ESSA plans to push ideas such as ESAs and school grades in Arizona, more flexible accountability measures in Colorado, and career and technical education in Kentucky.

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