COMMENTARY: What will Trump’s education agenda mean for Delaware?

President-elect Donald Trump has selected Betsy DeVos as his choice for Secretary of Education. A number of people in the community have asked me for my take on what this will mean for public education in Delaware. Here are some initial thoughts.

Of course, she’s not been confirmed yet and we don’t know what her plans will be, so we’re reading tea leaves at this point. But based on what we know of the federal landscape, Trump’s education platform and DeVos’ track record, here are some possibilities.

What we know. Last December, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed. In this reauthorized federal law, which frames what states can do with federal education funds, the general consensus was that the federal government should give states more latitude to define their own path. Certain base commitments remained in the law, like the requirements to assess how well our young people can read and perform mathematics. In the months that followed, there were tensions around how tight or loose the federal protections should be. The Democrats wanted tighter federal control, the Republicans, looser.

Given that the Republicans now control the White House, the House, and the Senate, ESSA oversight will likely be looser. That is, the ESSA plans that each state is required to submit this coming April or next September will largely be left to the states to define as long as their plans are in compliance with federal statute.

Paul Herdman

On the campaign trail, Trump didn’t focus a great deal on education, but he did speak about two prominent positions. One, he did not support the Common Core State Standards. And two, he did support school choice in the form of charter schools and vouchers.

Implications for Delaware’s academic standards will be decided here and not D.C. Since all state academic standards are determined at the state level—meaning the federal government has no jurisdiction over this decision and provides no funding for them—this will not change unless Delaware decides to do so. Delaware adopted the standards seven years ago, and 67 percent of teachers reported embracing them, according to a 2015 Harvard survey. Changing our standards now would require major investments in developing new standards, curriculum, training and assessments, and it could take years to negotiate and rebuild. So, our state policymakers could take this on, but I don’t see the impetus or benefit to doing so.

Let’s take a closer look at school choice. Trump proposed creating a $20 billion fund to support the expansion of charter schools and vouchers. Unless Congress wanted to dedicate new federal dollars to education, those dollars would likely need to be drawn from or completely repurposed from federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) funding, about $25 billion in federal resources that’s allocated to states. These federal funds account for about seven percent of Delaware’s annual expenditures on public education and are designed to support children in our highest need schools.

Trump not only suggested that the U.S. dedicate $20 billion in federal funds for choice, he indicated that he would encourage the states to pony up another $110 billion in public funds to support his choice plan. Given that Delaware’s entire education budget is just north of one billion dollars, that’s a very big ask.

If we look at DeVos’ record, she appears to be a passionate philanthropist and activist. She has no formal education experience, but she was the chair of Michigan’s Republican Party and, as a philanthropist, launched the American Federation of Children, a 501(c)(4) that promotes school choice, particularly in the form of vouchers, or what some call “education savings accounts.”

In her comments at the American Enterprise Institute, she makes the straightforward case that if one has the means to choose to attend a school in an affluent suburb or at an independent school, what right do policymakers have in denying that same option to a parent who lacks the means to make such a choice. She also points out that our current approach to education is like that of the Model T or Kodak film: simply outdated for the demands of the next generation and in need of investments in innovation.

I support the notion of choice and the need for innovation, but the path DeVos has promoted in Michigan is not one I hope she looks to expand in her new role. In Michigan, she appears to have supported the growth of charters with little regard to quality (see Politico for more details). Having worked for a charter school authorizer in Massachusetts, I believe quality far outweighs quantity.

She also supports the establishment of vouchers. Based on what we know so far, this approach raises a lot of questions around performance, equity, accessibility, and accountability. The discussion of vouchers likely warrants a dedicated post (a primer on vouchers from NPR can be found here), but in short, here are some policy questions to consider: What if a voucher only covers a small portion of an independent school tuition, will this approach actually help low income students at scale? If those same parents don’t live near a given school, will transportation be provided, and what if that child has a disability? What about the separation of church and state if public funds go to parochial schools? What about accountability of how those public dollars are impacting student learning given that independent schools don’t have the same public reporting requirements? And finally, if an approach is put forward, will it come with a track record of success?

[Read: On negative effects of vouchers, by Brookings for a more pessimistic view of the data; and for a more positive perspective, read here.]

I agree we need changes, but as DeVos builds her education agenda, my hope is that she doesn’t focus all her passion for innovation on the relatively small sector of charter and independent schools. District schools represent more than 90 percent of the schools in most states and, based on my experience here, if given the opportunity, can be powerful engines for change.

It’s unclear that a national approach to promote vouchers could even be implemented, but from an equity lens, we need to be mindful that a federal effort that disproportionately invests in charters and independent schools at the expense of district schools, would leave the vast majority of our nation’s children at a distinct disadvantage.

Let’s see how DeVos defines her charge.

Until then, I think it’s safe to say that the states are largely going to be left to their own devices when it comes to discerning the design of their systems of public schooling. So, it’s on us.

Delaware and the nation are politically polarized, but unlike virtually every other state in the country, Delaware has something no one else does…a 10-year plan that over 4,000 people contributed to. It’s called Student Success 2025. Over a two-year review period, it earned the approval of leaders from our business community, our districts, our teachers union, our charters, and higher education institutions, among others. It represents a coherent set of well-researched, interdependent policy recommendations—from strong early learning to college and career access—that should serve as a starting point for common ground and concrete progress.

As we move forward with ESSA and the new administrations at all levels, there will continue to be important disagreements. That creative tension is healthy and necessary. But given the serious fiscal challenges this state faces, if the various groups that advocate for children, including the Rodel Foundation, can’t align on some core big ideas, we will not move forward. If the infighting prevents any kind of alignment, policymakers and the public will look elsewhere to make progress, referenda will get tougher to pass, and our children will pay the price for our bickering.

Delaware has shown that it can be different. That it can be civil and find common ground. My hope in the New Year is that we prove that to ourselves and the nation once again.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Herdman is president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, whose mission is to help Delaware build one of the finest systems of public education in the world by 2020.

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