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Last Time DeVos Addressed State Chiefs, It Got Awkward. Here’s What to Expect Now

By Alyson Klein — April 07, 2019 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will be doing a “fireside chat” at the Council of Chief State School Officers Monday. She’ll be interviewed by Molly Spearman, the elected GOP state chief in South Carolina. She’s spent most of her time in office pushing for something state leaders love—local control—and chiefs are historically a polite audience.

But it might not be a super comfortable venue for her this time. Here’s why:

State leaders weren’t so happy with how DeVos attacked their ESSA plans last year.

Last time DeVos addressed the chiefs with some “tough love,” telling them their ESSA plans were more than a little lacking even though they technically met the letter of the law.

“Right now a student at school is stepping over rats, breathing in mold and dodging fists,” she said. “All they want to do is learn. All their parents want is something better. And what will you say? What do your plans say? What will you do? Will you look into those students’ eyes and settle for only what’s required, nothing more? Will you sit across from that student stepping over rats and say, ‘But our ESSA plan complied with the law!’”

Her remarks came after some governors, mostly Republicans, refused to sign off on ESSA plans that sometimes had been written by Democratic chiefs.

Some of the chiefs weren’t thrilled with her comments, especially after she had made speech after speech making it clear she was a fan of local control.

“I’ve never seen more talk about innovation in our state than I’ve seen in the last year,” North Dakota Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said at the time.

Despite her apparent misgivings, DeVos has approved every state’s ESSA plan. But will she repeat her critique this year?

It’s unclear what many state education leaders think of DeVos’ latest school choice idea.

In that budget request, DeVos and her team are also shopping a big proposal to expand choice: a federal tax-credit scholarship. It would allow individuals and corporations to donate to scholarship granting organizations, who could then use the money to expand private school choice, but also for afterschool programs, dual enrollment, early childhood education, and more.

To be sure, there may be fans of this plan in the audience. Eighteen states already have similar tax credit scholarships on the books. CCSSO itself hasn’t taken an official position on the proposal. But other organizations who support public education have come out strongly against the plan, which they see as a back-door way to siphon off funding from public schools.

It will be interesting to see what kind of reception it gets from individual chiefs.

The chiefs aren’t so thrilled with the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts.

For the third year in a row, Trump and DeVos have pitched cutting money for programs states and districts depend on, including afterschool programs, money to hire and train teachers, and a flexible grant that can be used for school safety, arts, physical education, and more.

CCSSO is a bipartisan organization, and therefore relatively cautious about taking a stand on controversial polices. But on this issue, their position is pretty clear.

“While we appreciate the Administration seeking to provide increased funding for school safety and apprenticeship programs, we believe the deep cuts proposed for certain programs in the next fiscal year would hobble states’ efforts to create more equitable education opportunities for every child,” Carissa Moffat Miller, CCSSO’s executive director, said in a statement. “Programs such as [teacher training ] and [the block grant] support state and local educators in making sure all students graduate prepared for college, careers and life.”

Photo: Associated Press

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