Tag Archives: Senate HELP Committee

Questions for Betsy DeVos Inspired by Education Outcomes in Michigan

Tonight is Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Education. Because DeVos doesn’t have a track record as a government official or leader within the public school or higher education system, as most of her predecessors do, analysts are looking at her role as a funder, GOP donor, and board member of education organizations to understand what she might do as Secretary. This scrutiny has drawn particular attention to DeVos’ engagement in education advocacy and political causes in Michigan, where her donations and advocacy have touched many major education policy decisions over the past 20 years.

In many ways, the education system in Michigan is a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities facing the broader U.S. education system — and the next Secretary of Education. In both Michigan and the U.S. as a whole, there are large, persistent achievement gaps for disadvantaged student groups; rural, suburban, and urban schools with unique (sometimes competing) needs; and a long history of hotly debated education reforms that have had mixed success. To help analysts, journalists, policymakers, and practitioners make sense of the education landscape in the Wolverine State — and what it suggests about the perspective and positions DeVos would bring to the role of Secretary — Bellwether has compiled a comprehensive fact base about the education policy landscape in Michigan that we will release next week after the Inauguration.

In the meantime, here are a few Michigan fast-facts to know as you watch tonight’s hearing:

Demographics of Michigan K-12 students by race/ethnicity, family income. Source: MISchoolData.org

Demographics of Michigan K-12 students by race/ethnicity and family income. Source: MISchoolData.org

  • There are over 1.5 million students in Michigan and nearly half of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunch; more than 33 percent are students of color.
  • Michigan ranks 41st in 4th grade reading performance in the U.S. and 42nd in 4th grade math.
  • 35 percent of Michigan 11th grade students are college-ready according to the SAT; there are substantial gaps in college-readiness rates among black, Hispanic, English language learner, and low-income students.
  • Michigan has one of the nation’s largest charter sectors, with 10 percent of students enrolled in charter schools, about 300 charter schools, and over 40 charter authorizers.
  • Over 70 percent of Michigan charter schools are operated by for-profit education service providers.
  • Detroit is the lowest performing urban school district in the country.
  • Detroit charter schools generally outperform Detroit Public Schools, but there are still concerns about the overall quality of the sector.

Given the above facts, here are a few questions we’d like DeVos to answer at tonight’s confirmation hearing:

  • What should be the role of the federal government in addressing longstanding achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color, like those that exist in Michigan?
  • As you know, Detroit students have struggled academically and gone through numerous failed reform efforts over several decades. Given your work in Detroit, what turnaround strategies would the Department of Education encourage for chronically low-performing school districts?
  • What did you learn from advocating for expanded school choice measures in Michigan and how might you enact those measures at the federal level as Secretary of Education?
  • The presence of multiple charter school authorizers in Michigan has decentralized charter responsibility in the state. What quality-control and accountability measures are necessary for charter school authorizers? What should be the federal role in setting that bar?
  • What has your experience and observation of school choice and school turnaround efforts in Michigan taught you about potential strategies for improving low-performing schools? How would those lessons be applied to this spring’s review of states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans?

Betsy DeVos’ hearing begins at 5pm and can be watched here. Check back here tomorrow for a recap of major events (and anything about Michigan education that needs a fact check).

To read our other coverage of Betsy DeVos, click here.

The Burden of Proof in Federal Education Policy

Are states entitled to federal education money? Lamar Alexander, the Republican Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, seems to think so. His draft bill to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act would entitle states with $14.9 billion a year federal dollars in exchange for…not much.

For the last 50 years, since the first federal K-12 education dollars began flowing to states, states had to ensure federal money was being spent on poor students and that they weren’t using federal investments as a replacement for state or local funding. Since the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, states have also had to measure and do something about student learning results.

Alexander would end this quid pro quo relationship. Instead of states having to comply with federal rules in order to get federal money, Alexander’s bill would require the U.S. Secretary of Education to prove states didn’t deserve federal money. Here’s the key provision:

The Secretary shall…deem a State plan as approved within 45 days of its submission unless the Secretary presents a body of substantial, high-quality education research that clearly demonstrates that the State’s plan does not meet the requirements of this section and is likely to be ineffective or is inappropriate for its intended purposes.

Not only would it have the U.S. Secretary of Education acting like a time-constrained prosecutor, but the bill is sprinkled with at least 16 50 other ways to limit federal oversight over federal money.

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Lamar Alexander’s NCLB Reauthorization Draft Is Mostly a Reprisal of His (Failed) 2013 Bill

Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions has released a new draft proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Called the “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015,” it builds off his earlier proposal, the “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2013.”

See what he did there? He subbed in “2015” for “2013.”

Or how about the bill’s statement of purpose? In 2015, it was, “to restore freedom to parents, teachers, principals and other school leaders, States, Governors, and local communities so that they can improve their local public schools.” In 2013, the bill was meant, “to restore freedom to parents, teachers, principals and other school leaders, States, Governors, and local communities so that they can improve their local public schools.”

Spot any differences? No? You get the gist.

Since Alexander is self-plagiarizing his 2013 bill, I feel comfortable repeating what I wrote about it then. Mainly:

Trust (but don’t verify). The most important word in Alexander’s bill is “assurance.” States would have to provide an assurance they’d adopted challenging academic standards and aligned assessments, an assurance that they have an accountability system, an assurance that they will identify schools in need of improvement and provide them some technical assistance, an assurance they will release results to the public, and an assurance they will monitor district implementation. There are no serious standards for these things and, even if there were, there would be no way to verify state assertions….

If you have any illusions about every state being a good actor on school performance, I encourage you to read the latest Education Sector report from John Chubb and Constance Clark. It found a wide and growing achievement gap that varies based on the state in which a student lives. Some states have produced fantastic results for students, but many others lag behind considerably. If you care at all about national education results, you probably don’t want to put all your faith in state assurances.

To be fair, congressional members often re-introduce bills offered in previous sessions. And Alexander’s 2015 bill does include some differences from his 2013 bill, including a “choose-your-own-adventure” option on testing.

But the majority of the text and the key elements in Alexander’s 2015 bill look largely like a reprisal of his 2013 offering. We should treat it as such. That bill received 0 Democratic votes in committee and never made it to the Senate floor. Alexander is talking a big game this time around about a bi-partisan bill, but, so far, it’s hard to find any actual evidence behind that talk.