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How Betsy DeVos’ Teacher Grants Boost Donald Trump’s Economic Agenda

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 01, 2020 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced awhile back that she would prioritize grants that aligned with one of President Donald Trump’s signature economic initiatives. And DeVos just demonstrated a prominent example of how this is working when she announced three sets of grants focused on educator development and training.

The new grant awards, which the U.S. Department of Education, also underscore an important but sometimes overlooked shift in education policy that could take place if former Vice President Joe Biden beats Trump in the Nov. 3 election.

On Wednesday, DeVos announced awards of nearly $100 million through three grant programs aimed at improving teacher and principal effectiveness. For two of them, the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program and the Teacher Quality Partnership Program, all the awards—23 in total—went to schools and nonprofit groups that connect in some way with Opportunity Zones.

These zones are generally designed to increase economic development in underserved and distressed communities by providing tax incentives for business to invest in them. They were authorized by Republican tax legislation Trump signed into law in 2017. DeVos’ department put out its proposal last year to prioritize competitive grant proposals that involved Opportunity Zones across a range of such grant programs.

DeVos has also encouraged charter schools to open in these zones, which not surprisingly have both their fans and critics.

Under the Teacher and School Leader Incentive program, all 13 of the grants totaling $63.7 million “overlap with a Qualified Opportunity Zone,” the department said. These grants will support “performanced-based” compensation systems for teachers and principals. And all 10 of the awards under Teacher Quality Partnerships program, totaling $7.3 million, will go to projects taking place in those zones.

In addition, a dozen new Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) grants adding up to $23.8 million will also place a priority on Opportunity Zones, among other things, although the department didn’t specify how many of the grants will do so. (Winners of the grants and more information can be found here.)

In a statement, DeVos said these grants are designed to change a system in which teachers “lack access to relevant professional development courses and are compensated on a step-scale ladder that treats them like cogs in a machine instead of as individuals with unique talents and interests.”

She also highlighted her department’s ongoing efforts to provide teachers vouchers for professional development programs under the federal Education Innovation and Research program.

So why did we bring up Joe Biden earlier? When contemplating what a Biden administration would mean for K-12 education, there’s often a focus on how it would represent a radical shift away from the Trump administration—and perhaps moving back towards the Obama administration—on issues like how big the federal education budget should be, charter school policy, and civil rights guidance.

But the Education Department also has significant power over what priorities their competitive grants (those that don’t just go out by a predetermined formula) support when they’re awarded. Race to the Top’s competitive grants were funded by Congress but awarded at the Obama Education Department’s discretion, for example.

It’s fair to say that a Biden administration would have different grant priorities than the Trump team. Would a Biden Education Department focus on socioeconomic integration initiatives in schools and efforts to increase teacher diversity across different types of grants? If Biden wins the election, we’ll get to see what kind of priorities his administration places on long-standing grants, as well as whether it pushes to create new grants to fund their policy agenda.

More reading: Check out our guide to what Biden and Trump have said and done about education.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos arrives on the South Lawn for a ceremony for the signing of the Abraham Accords on Sept. 15, 2020, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)