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Three Ways Betsy DeVos Could Push School Choice Without Congress

By Alyson Klein — October 10, 2017 3 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sits down with students at the Science Focus Program/Zoo School in Lincoln, Neb., as part of her “Rethink School” tour.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ school choice agenda has run into roadblocks on Capitol Hill. But, from her perch at the department, she has other levers to get states and districts to offer kids more schooling options, without help from anyone in Congress.

What are they? Here’s a quick breakdown:

Make it a priority for federal grants.

Okay, so far, Congress hasn’t seemed to wild about DeVos’ idea of a new grant program just for vouchers, or allowing Title I money to follow kids to the school of their choice. In fact, lawmakers have told her those things are a no-go for now. But the Education Department doles out more than $1 billion in federal grants every year. And if they want to, federal officials can give applicants a leg-up if they pitch something choice related, or maybe even if they are a charter school, or part of a district that’s home to a voucher program. That wouldn’t mean all of the money would go to choice-related activities, but it might steer a good chunk more in that direction.

DeVos and her team will have to be careful here, of course. They can’t change the requirements of a grant program that Congress has designed. But they can add to them. DeVos might have the best luck setting “choice” or “personalized learning” as her priorities, as opposed to, say, “vouchers” or even “charters.”

DeVos is definitely considering this.

“We do have some competitive-grant processes,” she told me in a recent interview. “We are clearly looking at ways to continue to help encourage empowering parents with more choices.” UPDATE: DeVos unveiled her federal grant priorities Wednesday and choice is indeed on the list. More here.

Use her secretarial megaphone.

DeVos can give speeches on the virtues of choice, and travel to schools and districts where she thinks choice is making a positive difference. She commands more media attention than any other secretary in history, so why not use some of that to shine a spotlight on approaches that she thinks other schools should emulate?

She did this most significantly in her Rethink Education Tour, in which she visited schools she thinks are doing innovative things in six states. And she thinks it helped showcase their work.

“Tours like this really highlight and expose to more people the beauty of options and choices and to continue to make the case that all parents, not only ones that have the economic means, should be able to have a decisionmaking power to make some of those choices,” DeVos told me in an interview conducted at the tail end of her tour.

Of course, DeVos’ public appearances are a double-edged sword for the secretary. Almost everywhere DeVos goes, protestors follow. And sometimes, as in her recent speech at Harvard University, they become the story. Her school choice cheerleading often plays second fiddle.

Open up the Every Student Succeeds Act’s weighted student-funding pilot.

DeVos is probably going to get moving on this one soon—she gave the pilot a shout-out in a recent speech to high-flying principals. The weighted student-funding pilot, which was written into ESSA, would allow districts to combine federal, state, and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students. English-language learners, kids in poverty, students in special education—who cost more to educate—would carry with them more money than other students. Some districts, including Denver, are already using this type of formula with state and local dollars.

Adopting a weighted student-funding formula could make it easier for districts to operate school choice programs, since money would be tied to individual students and could therefore follow them to charter or virtual public schools. The pilot doesn’t have to be used for school choice, if districts don’t want to do that, but it could help lay the groundwork for districts that are interested.

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