Policy Brief: Education Reform Under A Trump Administration from Jessica Levitan
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Note: This brief is intended as an introduction to current events or specific policies. Any opinions expressed herein reflect only those of the author.
If you're confused by the recent nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, you're not alone. Her struggle to answer basic questions about foundational education policies during her confirmation hearing was enough to compel thousands of Americans to call their representatives in protest. Despite public outcry and Senate disapproval, she was confirmed by one vote by Vice President Mike Pence, making her one of the most contentious nominees in recent history.
Ironically, Democrats were the ones to make it easier for candidates like her to be confirmed. In 2013, Democrats changed the Senate rules to allow executive branch nominees confirmations to pass with just 51 votes. They also abolished the ability to filibuster on executive branch nominees, which some argue could have prevented her nomination.
Nonetheless, DeVos was confirmed, and it's kind of a big deal.
DeVos's Confirmation Hearing Catastrophe
DeVos has captured a much larger audience than previous Secretaries of Education, probably due to her obvious ineptitude. Senator Al Franken asked DeVos if she thought test scores should measure a student's growth or proficiency. She answered, "I think if I am understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would correlate it to competency and mastery, so, each student according to the advancements they are making in each area" (C-Span). But what she described was growth, not proficiency, and her misunderstanding reveals her lack of familiarity with basic education policy. Proficiency measures how well students attain a certain level of competency. Growth measures how much progress students make. DeVos did not understand the simple difference.
Connecticut Senate Chris Murphy asked DeVos if guns have a place in schools, to which she replied, "I think that's best left up to locales and states to decide" (C-Span). She proceeded to say that in places like Wyoming, guns in schools can protect people from grizzly bear attacks.
Perhaps her most universally upsetting response was to Senator Tim Kaine, who wanted to know what she would do to advocate for students with disabilities. The "Individuals With Disabilities Education Act " or IDEA guarantees a public education to every child, regardless of ability, and requires schools to accommodate students with disabilities as much as they accommodate other students. DeVos said, 'That is a matter that is best left to the states" (C-Span). She went on to applaud a Florida program that incentivized parents of students with disabilities to relinquish IDEA rights for their children in exchange for vouchers that pay for private school. Senate Maggie Hassen flatly asked her if she was aware that the IDEA is a federal law, to which DeVos replied, she "may have confused" this aw with another piece of legislation (C-Span).
DeVos's Political Identity
DeVos is not a champion of public education. She is a millionaire donor to the Republican party, who has given millions of dollars over the years to religious right-wing organisations. Politifact reports that DeVos personally donated $25,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which lobbies to expand rights for college students accused of sexual assault. Financial records show that DeVos and her husband donated $5.7 million to Focus on the Family, a Christian organisation that advocates school-sanctioned conversion therapy for LGBTQ students. DeVos was even listed as the Foundation's Vice President, but claimed that this was a "clerical error" (Politifact.)
Aside from her personal involvements in right-wing organizations, DeVos does have some experience in public service. She chaired the Michigan Republican Party and served as their delegate at the Republican National Convention. Through her political work, she directed a statewide ballot campaign to legalize public funding of religious schools. Now, thanks to her, Michigan charter schools are virtually unregulated, which disproportionately forces low-income minority students into under resourced public schools.
And that’s pretty much it. Her political work has largely centered on the promotion of religious ideology by publicly-funded programs. Her signature plan as Secretary of Education is to expand voucher programs across the country, which would encourage families to send their children to private and certain charter schools instead of directing funds into public school systems. The Florida program she praised during her confirmation hearing is exactly the kind of program she’s going to pursue, and will most likely target families of children with disabilities with vouchers for private school, promising them more individualized treatment in exchange for their children's’ IDEA rights.
The Public vs. Charter School Debate
The conversation around education reform is shaped by the ongoing competition of public schools and charter schools. Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that operate independently of the surrounding public school system, and, in some cases, are privately owned.
Charter school advocates would say they give families more choices. Parents may want to send their children to a school that has a specialized focus on music, or social justice leadership, or STEM subjects, instead of enrolling them in the local school. Plus, because they can select their students from a range of applicants, charter schools can cater to a specific kind of student, rather than adhere to a standardized curriculum.
Critics argue that the selectivity of charter schools discriminates against students who don’t perform as well academically, or students who require special education services. These students may feel like they don’t have the resources or support to succeed in the less regulated charter school setting. Plus, unlike public schools, which are run by publicly-elected representatives, charter schools are private entities. Their boards usually consist of Administrators and donors, so there are very few opportunities for community members and parents to have a say in school policies.
And last but not least, there is the issue of scarcity. The Department of Education only has so much money to allocate towards education, and charter schools end up competing for grants and funds. The State Charter Schools Facilities Incentive Grant program is a federal program that gives competitive grants to charter schools. Federal funds are used to match non-federal dollars that are paid on a per-pupil basis for charter school facilities. The program is designed to encourage states to share the cost of facilities, but some argue this incentivizes states to redirect money that would have gone to public school systems.
DeVos’s Ability to Change Education Policy
Liberals biggest concern about DeVos is that she’ll “destroy public education.” It would actually be really hard for DeVos to enact monumental changes on her own. The extent of her power goes as far as marginal adjustments to federal grant programs. So far, her only suggestion to education reform has been increasing vouchers for low-income families, a policy that would still need support in Congress.
But she is in the unique position to ease regulations in many areas. The Obama administration passed legislation that held for-profit colleges responsible for proving that they actually help students find jobs that let them pay back their loans. DeVos can delay those regulations. If Congress votes to block them, she can decide whether or not to replace them.
Despite not seeming to understand IDEA, DeVos can ease the pressure on schools to treat students with disabilities equally. The Department of Education doesn’t have to respond to every complaint the same, and can decide whether or not to partner with the Justice Department to sue schools that don’t comply.
In that same vein, DeVos can ease the pressure on schools to uphold policies that protect transgender students. The Obama administration famously advised schools to let students use whichever bathroom in which they felt comfortable. DeVos can discontinue that guidance and choose not to go after schools who fail to address gender-and-sexuality-based bullying. DeVos can also continue her work to protect college students accused of sexual assault. The Office of Civil Rights is required to investigate complaints about mishandled sexual assault, but under DeVos’s guidance, the office could go easier on colleges with numerous complaints.
All in all, DeVos’s unilateral power to create or erase federal educational policy is limited. The greater threat to public education is her ability to ease up on regulations and policies that require schools to treat all students equally.