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Betsy DeVos Wants to Direct Federal Funds to School Choice, STEM, Workforce Readiness

By Alyson Klein — February 28, 2018 2 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks with members of the media last month in Washington.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will give applicants for federal grants a leg-up if they are planning to embrace things like school choice, STEM, literacy, school climate, effective instruction, career preparation, and serving military-connected children and students in special education.

That’s according to the final list of Education Department priorities slated for publication in the Federal Register on March 2.

If the list looks familiar, it’s because it hasn’t gone through substantial changes since DeVos first outlined her proposed priorities back in October. DeVos made some tweaks based on more than 1,000 outside comments.

The department gives away at least $500 million in competitive-grant money every year. Every administration sets “priorities” for that funding. These matter because applicants that include one or more of those priorities in a grant proposal are more likely to get money. The priorities are one of the few vehicles DeVos—or any secretary—has for pushing an agenda without new legislation from Congress.

So were there big changes to the priorities, based on feedback? DeVos did not ditch or add any priorities based on the public’s response. But she did make some tweaks to her existing list. For instance, some commenters had suggested adding a priority for early-childhood education. DeVos and her team demurred, but decided to add language making it clear that early-childhood education programs are eligible for funding under other priorities, including school choice.

Many commenters pushed back on the idea of steering more federal funding to school choice. For instance, the National Coalition for Public Education, which is made up of 50 organizations, including both national teachers’ unions, AASA: The School Superintendents Association, the National PTA, disability rights groups, the NAACP, and others, worried that this could hurt public schools.

“The Department should not reward states for adopting voucher programs that do not serve all students, fail to improve academic achievement, undermine public education funding, harm religious freedom and lack critical accountability for taxpayers,” the groups wrote.

DeVos’ team, unsurprisingly, defended the focus on choice. And they noted that public schools could be eligible for funding under this priority, as well as private schools and charters.

“We share commenters’ support for public education and believe educational choice is compatible with support for public schools. We would also note, however, that positive educational outcomes for students must be prioritized over support for a particular public or private entity,” the department wrote in the notice announcing the final list of priorities.

Here’s the full list of priorities: school choice; promoting innovation; skills development; meeting the needs of students in special education or who have unique talents; promoting STEM; promoting literacy; promoting effective instruction; promoting economic opportunity; school climate; and ensuring that service members have access to high-quality school choice. More detail here.

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