What does Betsy DeVos mean for Minnesota schools?

Joe Nathan

Center for School Change

Although it’s too early to know for sure, the confirmation of the new U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, probably means several things for Minnesota’s students, families and schools.

First, the confirmation process reflected and reminded us of the deep disagreements we have about who our leaders should be. U.S. Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., issued a press release describing the just-confirmed DeVos as “fundamentally unqualified to lead the Education Department.” (Franken’s statement is here: http://bit.ly/2jZSOqB.)

Franken’s questioning of DeVos during confirmation hearings showed she appeared to not understand an important issue in testing: whether accountability systems should stress how much growth students in a school are making as measured by standardized tests, or focus on what percentage of students are reaching or exceeding a specific level of knowledge. While it need not be one or the other, this is a basic issue. I agree with Franken: The secretary of education should understand and be able to comment on this.

While Franken and many others questioned whether DeVos is qualified, others defended her. Michael J. Petrilli, president of the (conservative) Thomas B. Fordham Institute and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wrote that she will be a “great Education Secretary.” (His opinion can be found here: http://fxn.ws/2kQlodb.)

The confirmation hearing showed a second thing I think we can expect from DeVos: States will have more discretion about how to work with students than they had during the last two administrations, Democratic and Republican.

When responding to questions from senators, DeVos said she wanted to rely on states to determine how to work with students with a disability. She appeared to not understand federal law that mandates certain procedures and policies about how schools must work with these students and their families. This deeply concerns many advocates for these students. But it is part of the overall DeVos’ philosophy of giving more power to states.

Third, DeVos’ record over more than 30 years shows she is a strong advocate of various forms of school choice. This includes both public school choice plans and programs that permit tax funds to follow students, paying their tuition at private and parochial schools. I believe many public school choice plans, including district and charter programs, offer valuable opportunities to students, families and educators. Dual-credit programs also are very helpful.

However, I disagree with DeVos’ support for laws that allow tax funds to pay tuition and other fees at private and parochial K-12 schools. I don’t think public funds should be used to encourage promotion of a religion or that public funds should flow to a school that uses admissions tests to determine which students are accepted to the school. One of the strengths of public education has been that we expect publicly funded schools to be open to all.

How will DeVos reconcile greater discretion for states with her belief in school choice? I think she’ll recommend an increasing amount of federal funds be available to support and encourage, but not require, school choice adopted by state legislatures and local communities. It’s not clear whether those funds will be reallocated from existing program or represent additions to federal support for education.

The more than 1 million phone and email messages that went to Congress about DeVos show that Americans care deeply about education. I hope she will make a priority of tapping into citizens’ deep interest in and commitment to great schools.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]