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DeVos Cites District of Columbia in Defending Trump’s Push for School Choice

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 02, 2017 3 min read
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To illustrate why the Trump administration wants to expand school choice through its budget proposal, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is pointing to the experience of the nation’s capital.

During DeVos’ visit to the Eagle Academy Public Charter School to highlight the launch of a new special education website here on Friday, we asked the secretary what she would say to skeptics of President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget (including conservative critics) who don’t want Washington directing school choice expansion efforts.

“The reality is that in the District of Columbia, the federal government is involved,” DeVos responded, referring to Congress’ role in overseeing the district. “And I think the choices that have grown up and have been afforded to families here are very, very strong and encouraging. I think there’s continued room for more choices and improvements across the board. But I’m very encouraged by the variety of choices that families within the District of Columbia have today, and the opportunities they’ll have tomorrow with a continued, robust environment for choices.”

Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 would institute a new $250 million grant program for states to fund and research the effects of private school vouchers, a new $1 billion public school choice program under Title I funding for disadvantaged students, and a 50 percent bump in federal charter school funding, up to $500 million.

The secretary, who was at the Eagle Academy to discuss the U.S. Department of Education’s new website for special education with teachers, also took—but mostly avoided directly answering—questions about her Thursday statement in support of the president’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement aimed at combatting climate change. (Her meeting with teachers about the new special education website was closed to the press.)

“Certainly the climate changes,” she said, but she did not attribute those changes to human activity. She praised the president for making sure “the American people are not subject to overreach” with respect to the Paris agreement. And she said that the president was focused on ensuring there would be new job prospects for younger citizens. “We are going to have many opportunities for American students like this that are coming up and being exposed to science at a young age,” she said.

DeVos praised Eagle Academy for its work with special needs students for being “really, really intentional and helping them achieve at higher levels than anybody would have imagined.” About 16 percent of the school’s 700 students, spread across two campuses, have special needs.

DeVos has visited traditional public, private, and charter schools in the District of Columbia, where perhaps the most politically controversial school choice program is the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. Recently reauthorized by Congress, the voucher system serves about 1,200 students in the District. But a recent experimental-design study from the Institute for Education Sciences showed negative academic results for students who took the vouchers compared to those who applied for the vouchers but did not receive them.

Shortly after the study came out, the Republican-controlled Congress prohibited further such studies from being conducted on the D.C. voucher program, as part of the fiscal 2017 budget deal.

Charter schools in the District outperformed traditional public schools in the nation’s capital on last year’s mandatory English/language arts and math exams in elementary and high schools. But D.C. charters do have their share of critics over issues like their higher-than-average rates of suspending students.

Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 would institute a new $250 million grant program for states to fund and research the effects of private school vouchers, a new $1 billion public school choice program under Title I funding for disadvantaged students, and a 50 percent bump in federal charter school funding, up to $500 million.

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visits students’ science fair at Eagle Academy Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C., on June 2. DeVos visited the school in part to discuss the U.S. Department of Education’s new website for special education information and services. (Andrew Ujifusa)


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