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DeVos scales back fed education role, lets states lead

August 12, 2017

State lawmakers around the country are pushing bold and ambitious education reform plans and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appears content to let them lead the way.

“It’s encouraging to see so many states pass pro-student and pro-parent legislation that expands the educational opportunities available to children and their families,” DeVos told RealClearEducation in a statement. “I’ve always said that parents and educators at the grassroots level know best what their students need.”

While the secretary is a vocal proponent of school choice, she prefers that states and local officials take the initiative. Even with Republican control of the White House and Capitol Hill, DeVos has pledged not to push a federal school choice program and has indicated that any federal action would come in the form of support for choice programs that states can opt to participate in.

The secretary’s philosophy runs counter to much of the modern history of American public education. Starting with President Lyndon Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, nearly every administration has exerted some sort of federal influence over K-12 education, from President Jimmy Carter’s creation of the Department of Education to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind to President Obama’s Race to the Top.

The one glaring exception is the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a bipartisan piece of legislation signed by Obama that hands a substantial amount of authority and decision-making back to the states. DeVos embraces ESSA wholeheartedly.

During her address to the American Legislative Exchange Council last month, DeVos said she wants states to break out of a “compliance mentality” and instead “embrace the opportunity for creativity and flexibility.” Some of her critics fear this hands-off approach will whittle away federal civil rights protections and undermine long-standing federal programs, but DeVos insists that states, districts and families can best serve and protect their students and that federal intervention is only needed sparingly.

This message comes at a propitious time for the GOP, which has complete control of government in 25 states and partial control in 20 more. Republicans across the country have already seized this opportunity.

“We’ve seen more than 42 legislative chambers in two dozen states pass bills expanding school choice for students and their families in the first six months of this year,” DeVos noted in her statement. “This progress didn’t come as a result of a top-down federal dictate – it came as a result of leadership on the local level and a demand from parents for more and better options.”

Here is a look at several states where Republicans are implementing major choice-related policies:

Arizona

The Grand Canyon State may lead the country in transformative and controversial education reform plans in 2017. It became a political lightning rod earlier this year after its historic expansion of education savings accounts (ESAs) from 3,500 students to roughly 30,000. However, earlier this week, Save Our Schools Arizona, an organization dedicated to stopping the ESA program, succeeded in gathering the signatures of 100,000 voters opposed to the program, more than the number required by law to trigger a referendum on it. If the agency overseeing elections deems these signatures valid, then voters will decide the future of the ESA program at the polls in November.

The state’s new budget also contains another ambitious education reform that may prove just as consequential: results-based funding. The $37 million program will award $400 per student to the state’s highest performing schools in low-income areas (defined in the law as schools with 60 percent or more of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch) and $250 per student to the highest performing schools in the remaining areas. For the first year, schools in poor districts can qualify if at least 41 percent of its students pass the state’s standardized tests for math and English. For middle- or upper-class districts, the pass rate is 65 percent. However, after year one, the state will judge performance based on its new A-F school rating system, which incorporates standardized tests, growth, college and career readiness and other metrics.

Arizona state Sen. Paul Boyer, chairman of the Arizona House Education Committee, said the initiative came as a result of high-performing schools reporting that they could serve more kids if given the resources to do so. In addition, he did not want to see Arizona attempt its own version of the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants program. The $7 billion federal initiative provided dollars to failing schools in an attempt to turn them around. However, the department’s own audit found that it produced no meaningful results.

“We wanted to flip that approach on its head and say, ‘Why don’t we actually fund what works?’” Boyer explained. He also stressed that the program utilizes new money – not funds taken from other schools or programs – and that half of it is earmarked for teacher raises.

However, opponents believe the money would be better spent if it was directed toward teacher raises across the board. “No organization aiming for excellence for all would give bonuses to a select few, while leaving basic bills unpaid,” Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance, said in a statement. “Yet that is exactly what the Governor is proposing for public schools. These funds would make a much bigger difference in addressing the teacher shortage crisis if they were invested in teacher raises for all district and charter schools.”

Boyer pushed back on this idea. “Funding success not only grows more high-quality seats for students, it promises to help keep teachers who came to education to help kids learn but leave when they’re frustrated at a lower-performing school,” he stated.

Colorado

In June, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bipartisan piece of legislation that seeks to equalize traditional public school funding and public charter school funding. Currently, traditional public schools receive approximately 20 percent, or $2,000, more per student than public charters, according to one of the bill’s sponsors, Republican state Sen. Owen Hill. The bill requires all school districts to develop a plan by the start of the 2019 academic year to equally distribute mill levy overrides – voter-approved tax increases – among charter schools.

Hill believes the bill is the first of its kind in the country and represents a “shift from a focus on a system” to “funding outcomes for students.”

The number of Colorado charter schools has grown 30 percent since 2013, according to the state Department of Education, but roughly $34 million in tax increases have not been shared equitably with them. Critics of the legislation insist that it will seize funding control from local districts. However, Hill says that’s the wrong way to look at the issue.

“We’re not here to fund the system,” he added. “We’re here to fund students’ learning.”

Florida

A group of approximately 200 perpetually failing schools have stymied reform efforts in Florida for years. These schools are located in high-poverty areas where, in some cases, about 80 percent of the students are not at grade level.

This has long bothered state Rep. Michael Bileca, chairman of the Florida House Education Committee. “We don’t accept as a norm that children in poverty are going to schools where they’re not going to be proficient in math and reading,” he stated.

So Bileca, along with his Republican colleagues in the Florida legislature, set out to design a new program to solve this education crisis: Schools of Hope.

The initiative puts $140 million in a fund that can be used to attract some of the nation’s highest performing charter school networks to plant schools in the lowest performing areas in the state. Bileca, a key architect of the program, traveled around the country visiting schools that are excelling in high-poverty areas. As a result, he helped create a regulatory pathway that would provide the funding and circumstances necessary for a School of Hope to open in Florida. But not just any school can qualify for this designation. Bileca explained that the law sets a very high bar. For example, a charter network must demonstrate that its schools deliver graduation levels and math and reading proficiency above state averages and it must commit to the community for at least five years.

If the charter network does qualify, it can use a portion of the $140 million for facility construction – a persistent hurdle for charters. The law also creates regulatory pathways to ease the move, such as eliminating teacher certification requirements. Bileca believes that the program is the largest of its kind in existence today.

In June, Gov. Rick Scott signed the program into law as part of a larger, wide-ranging education bill. However, critics had blasted the legislation and Scott considered vetoing the bill at one point. Opponents of the program believe that Schools of Hope will bring in outsiders who don’t understand the community and will ultimately pull resources away from already troubled public schools.

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