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How Could Betsy DeVos Use ESSA to Champion School Choice?

By Alyson Klein — December 15, 2016 5 min read
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President-elect Donald Trump and his education secretary pick, Betsy DeVos, may not get the giant voucher program they want, at least not right away. But they don’t need new legislation to push other forms of school choice.

The year-old Every Student Succeeds Act includes a host of provisions that DeVos and her team could use to promote public school choice, such as virtual learning, and charter schools. It’s important to note that almost all of these features are optional for states and districts. They don’t have to take advantage of them if they don’t want to.

Still, if DeVos is confirmed, expect her Education Department to use its new megaphone to highlight these parts of the law, and give states and districts guidance on how to make the most of them. DeVos could do that in much the same way that John B. King Jr., the current education secretary, and his team have put a spotlight on the parts of the law that call on districts to use evidence-based interventions for struggling schools or offer students a well-rounded education, for instance.

So what are likely to be DeVos’ favorite parts of the law? Here’s a quick rundown:

Weighted Student Funding Pilot

ESSA allows up to 50 school districts that want to try out a “weighted student funding” formula to combine their federal funds with state and local money. Weighted student funding formulas essentially allow districts to tailor the amount of money each student gets to those students’ needs. That means, for instance, that English-language learners or students in poverty could get a bigger piece of the school funding pie than kids from middle class families whose first language is English. There are some requirements attached to the pilot. For instance, these new formulas would have to ensure that each high-poverty school gets more per-pupil funding than it did in the previous academic year.

GOP lawmakers billed this part of ESSA as win for school choice. But importantly, districts don’t have to use it for public school choice programs if they don’t want to. And the money can’t go to private schools. Still, if a district or state does want funding to follow individual kids to say, a public charter, participation in this pilot could make that a lot easier.

The pilot project only lasts three years. After that, the Institute of Education Sciences is supposed to report on districts’ progress. At that point, the secretary can decide to renew the flexibility and, potentially, broaden it to other districts. More information on the weighted student funding pilot here.

So far, the Obama administration has been busy laying the groundwork on other parts of the law and hasn’t opened up this pilot yet. It might rank higher on Team DeVos’ priority list.

Title I Set-Aside

States can, if they choose, set aside 3 percent of their Title I money—the main funding source in ESSA—for a bunch of different purposes, including tutoring, credit recovery, expanded access to rigorous courses, and personalized learning. Districts could also use the money to allow students in schools that have been flagged as needing improvement under the law to transfer to a better-performing public school, including a charter.

Most of the money—99 percent—has to end up in district coffers eventually, but states that take advantage of this provision would get to decide how it’s used. And states could choose to dole the money out competitively, as long as they give a leg-up to districts with a lot of schools that have been singled out for extra help.

Organizations that DeVos has funded or sat on the boards of—like the Foundation for Excellence in Education, started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—are big fans of virtual and online courses. So it’s easy to see her working to make sure that states know about this set-aside.

Chiefs for Change, a group of state and district leaders, has a helpful guide on this part of the law, which you can check out here.

Funding Flexibility

ESSA also allows states to transfer money from Title II of the law (which deals with teacher quality) into Title IV of the law, which is hugely flexible and can cover a whole range of things. That includes technology and anything that would help students become college-and-career ready, such as Advanced Placement courses. This provision could open the door to districts using their federal funds to expand choice, at least in the form of virtual courses.

Public School Choice

Under ESSA, districts can let students in schools that have been flagged as needing serious help (called “comprehensive support” under the law) transfer to better-performing schools in the district, including charters. Districts that decide to exercise this option have to give priority to struggling, low-income students. It’s hard to imagine a ton of districts jumping to do this—not many folks took advantage of the choice provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act, the previous version of the law. But DeVos and company could make sure districts know it’s an option. And they could even try to highlight this provision for parents so they’ll put pressure on local leaders to make use of the flexibility.

Private Schools

Believe it or not, ESSA contains some provisions on private schools, although none of them are expressly aimed at promoting choice. These aren’t brand-new for ESSA—they were in previous versions of the underlying Elementary and Secondary Act—but ESSA beefed them up.

Here’s how these provisions work: Private schools don’t get Title I money for disadvantaged children like public schools do. But, the kids they enroll who are eligible for Title I count toward the school district’s overall allocation. And those students are supposed to be able to get the same access to services provided by the district as other Title I kids that attend regular public schools, including after-school or tutoring program. Districts are supposed to “meaningfully consult” with private schools to find out what these students need, and ESSA gave more thorough instructions than previous versions of the law when it comes to what that consultation should look like.

ESSA also tasked state education agencies to identify a “private school ombudsman” who can help make sure that districts are following through with these provisions. More in this blog post from Andrew.

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with his pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, during a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Dec. 9.--Paul Sancya/AP

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