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Six Education Policy Areas Where Betsy DeVos’ Views Still Aren’t Clear

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 18, 2017 7 min read
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Betsy DeVos gave education policy and politics watchers lots to talk about after her confirmation hearing for education secretary on Tuesday. She provided detailed arguments about Michigan charter schools and school accountability in that state, and for how she’d be a “crusader” for parents and students rather than the education establishment. DeVos also made waves for her comments on special education law and states’ responsibilities in that area.

But there were also areas of K-12 policy where DeVos gave general or somewhat limited answers to senators’ question. Perhaps it’s not surprising that in several respects, DeVos didn’t want to spell out detailed views on every issue raised, in part because she might have worried that she would come across as prejudging certain situations. And sometimes, senators left notable issues out of their lines of questioning.

Still, DeVos’ comments at the hearing leave some interesting questions about her positions. Here are some areas where questions about DeVos might be lingering:

ESSA Accountability Rules

DeVos told senators that she would faithfully implement the Every Student Succeeds Act as Congress intended. However, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., asked her specifically about whether she would implement final accountability rules for ESSA issued by President Barack Obama’s administration. Murphy noted that these rules had incorporated input from and were supported by state chiefs, administrators and others.

“I think accountability is highly important. I support accountability for all schools,” DeVos responded.

Murphy asked the question again, and DeVos said she would review it. “I think that’s going to raise a lot of questions” for school administrators trying to implement the law, Murphy said, before moving on. The Trump administration may not stick by those rules, and Senate Republicans have expressed interest in tossing out the regulation anyway, so her thoughts on the rules may become a moot point.

At the same time, DeVos didn’t use Murphy’s questions to weigh in on the pros and cons of the Obama proposal, or share more detailed views of accountability.

She also told Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in response to his question about whether schools getting taxpayer money should be held equally accountable, especially in special education, reiterated several times that, “I support accountability.” But she didn’t really flesh out that statement despite pressure from Kaine to give a yes-or-no answer. (In the past DeVos has supported school accountability based on A-F school grades, but she’s also recently expressed support for states to opt out of federal accountability mandates.)

Early Education

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., discussed Georgia’s approach to offering publicly funded prekindergarten through a variety approaches involving public and private institutions. He spoke positively about the idea of involving the private sector in early education. “If you get the private sector making an investment in public education ... you can greatly expand the opportunity of education,” he said.

DeVos responded that Georgia’s approach was “interesting” and possibly similar to what Florida has done, although she didn’t elaborate on Florida’s strategy. And in general, she said she’d be interested in working with others to re-examine federal programs like Head Start to assess their influence on early education. (Head Start is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Education Department.)

But she didn’t definitively agree or disagree with the approach Isakson laid out, and she didn’t weigh in on broader policy debates surrounding early education, such as the extent to which it should be publicly funded.

And in response to a question from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., about efforts to make child care more affordable, she said she wanted to work to ensure children “had an opportunity for a great education in the future.”

Proficiency vs. Growth

As part of a criticism of the usefulness of annual, federally required tests in reading and math, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked DeVos about the merits of emphasizing students’ proficiency on tests (such as those required by ESSA) versus emphasizing students’ growth.

DeVos responded by saying, “If I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.”

At that point Franken cut her off and said DeVos was mistaken because she was describing growth, not proficiency. After DeVos said she was seeking to clarify the two concepts as he meant them, Franken expressed surprise that she didn’t have thoughts on the merits of proficiency versus growth, and he dropped the subject.

DeVos did not seem to correctly distinguish between proficiency and growth. But we still didn’t learn whether she preferred one or the other with respect to judging students’ test scores. (To be fair, Franken raised the issue in the context of computer-adaptive tests, which adjust to students based on their ability levels and aren’t necessarily directly related to measuring student growth specifically.)

Civil Rights

In part because she was pressed on the issue by several Democrats, DeVos did make several direct statements about civil rights issues. When asked about her stance on rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students in education, for example, DeVos said, “I embrace equality.” She also said, “I just can’t imagine having a child who would be discriminated against for any reason,” and that children deserved to go to a “safe and discrimination-free place to become educated.”

And she told Franken that she had never supported so-called gay conversion therapy, which claims to “cure” people of their homosexuality.

But she also disavowed a purported quote from her that she would rein in the office for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Ultimately, DeVos left unsaid how she would consider or change that office’s approach to several key civil rights issues, such as the department’s recent controversial guidance to schools emphasizing the rights of transgender students. (Equality Michigan, an LGBTQ rights group in DeVos’ home state, praised her remarks after the hearing.)

She also told Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., that she would examine the federal government’s role in dealing with sexual assault on college campuses, saying, “Assault in any form is never okay.” But she didn’t commit to keeping current Education Department guidance on the issue. The issue of how she would handle undocumented immigrant students in schools didn’t really come up.

College Access

When asked by Sanders about making public colleges and universities tuition-free, DeVos called it “an interesting idea.” But then she said, “There’s nothing in life that’s really free. Somebody’s going to pay for it.”

DeVos then started to discuss making higher education more affordable, but Sanders said that wasn’t the focus of his question. After he asked his question again, DeVos then said, “We can work hard on making sure that college or higher education in some form is affordable for all young people that want to pursue it.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked DeVos about what information students should have access to about the success of students repaying their student loans across various institutions of higher education.

“The issue of student debt and the amount of student debt, over $1.3 trillion right now ... it’s a very serious issue, and one which we all have to pay very close attention to,” DeVos said. She said she wanted to “get after” the issue if confirmed.

In her opening remarks, DeVos said she wanted to address student-loan debt. But she didn’t flesh out any views on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, a top priority for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee chairman.

Career and Technical Education

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who spoke on behalf of DeVos to open the hearing, asked for DeVos’ thoughts on the importance of career and technical education programs, and what she thought about more flexibility for them. Citing the importance of CTE programs to high-tech manufacturing, Scott said, “The importance of our technical schools can’t be overestimated.”

DeVos responded that students needed a full menu of options to figure out their best course to a successful career. “There’s really a wide variety of alternative pathways to a really great future” if students can find them, she said. But she didn’t expand on any flexibility she thought might be needed for CTE programs, or her record with such issues.

Congress flirted with reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act last year, with the House passing a bill that would have given states more flexibility in some areas of CTE.

Photos: Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster); DeVos arrives with former Sen. Joe Lieberman, right, before testifying at her confirmation hearing (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster).

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