Dear Commons Community,
Betsy DeVos made a career of promoting local control of education, now as U.S. Department of Education Secretary, she is signaling a surprisingly hard-line approach to carrying out a federal education law, issuing critical feedback that has irked state school chiefs and conservative education experts alike. The New York Times has a featured article on DeVos’s apparent change of position. Here is an excerpt:
“President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 as the less intrusive successor to the No Child Left Behind law, which was maligned by many in both political parties as punitive and prescriptive. But in the Education Department’s feedback to states about their plans to put the new law into effect, it applied strict interpretations of statutes, required extensive detail and even deemed some state education goals lackluster.
In one case, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, Jason Botel, wrote to the State of Delaware that its long-term goals for student achievement were not “ambitious.”
“It is mind-boggling that the department could decide that it’s going to challenge them on what’s ambitious,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who worked in the Education Department under President George W. Bush. He called the letter “directly in opposition to the rhetoric and the promises of DeVos.”
After more than a decade of strict federal education standards and standardized testing regimes, the Every Student Succeeds Act was to return latitude to the states to come up with plans to improve student achievement and hold schools accountable for student performance.
It sought to relieve states from the federal pressures of its predecessor, which required that 100 percent of the students of every school reach proficiency on state tests or the school would face harsh penalties and aggressive interventions. Unlike No Child Left Behind, the new law does not set numerical achievement targets, nor does it mandate how a state should intervene if a school fails to reach them. The law does require that states set such benchmarks on their own.
Proponents, especially congressional Republicans and conservative education advocates, believed that a new era of local control would flourish under Ms. DeVos, who pointed to the new law as illustrative of the state-level empowerment she champions.
But her department’s feedback reflects a tension between ideology and legal responsibility: While she has said she would like to see her office’s role in running the nation’s public schools diminished, she has also said she will uphold the law…
Mr. Botel defended the department’s feedback, saying it was measuring state plans against federal statutes — including a requirement that plans be ambitious.
“Because the statute does not define the word ‘ambitious,’ the secretary has the responsibility of determining whether a state’s long-term goals are ambitious,” Mr. Botel said.
In the department’s letter to Delaware — which incited the most outrage from conservative observers — Mr. Botel took aim at the state’s plan to halve the number of students not meeting proficiency rates in the next decade. Such a goal would have resulted in only one-half to two thirds of some groups of students achieving proficiency, he noted.
The department deemed those long-term goals, as well as those for English-language learners, not ambitious, and directed the state to revise its plans to make them more so.
So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have submitted plans, and more states will present plans in the fall. Delaware, New Mexico and Nevada were the first three to be reviewed by Education Department staff and a panel of peer reviewers.”
It will be interesting to see how this evolves. I predict DeVos will look to intrude on state and local education rather than take a hands-off approach.