Big surprise: Washington ain’t letting go of its authority to run public education! That’s the gist of news about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education that she now runs. Here’s the lede from one story, this one by Tom Chorneau of Cabinet Report:
“(District of Columbia) In a muddled if not contrarian response to a state plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act, the U.S. Department of Education has suggested, among other things, that student performance can only be measured by math and reading scores. (emphasis added)
The surprise pronouncement, included as part of the department’s review of Delaware’s plan for meeting ESSA requirements, stands in stark contrast to what architects of the law said were two key goals—giving states the freedom and the responsibility for designing their own accountability systems; and removing the federal government as arbiter over school performance.”
Now, remember that Donald Trump promised to give control of education back to local communities, and Secretary DeVos often speaks about her commitment to giving families choices and the importance of freeing states and communities from the heavy hand of Washington. Now, however, we see that her vision closely resembles those of the test-obsessed folks who ran the Department under the two previous administrations.
George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” convinced me and many others that the federal government cannot run public education. Unfortunately, the Democrats serving in Barack Obama’s Administration came to a different conclusion. They decided that NCLB proved that Republicans cannot run public education–but they could! And so Democrats adopted an even harsher, more controlling approach of test-based accountability known as “Race to the Top.” In a classic display of hubris, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education forced states (nearly broke because of The Great Recession) to compete for federal dollars by requiring them to adopt four policies: 1) judge teachers by student test scores, 2) get on board with higher standards (which just happened to resemble the Common Core), 3) improve data gathering, and 4) open more charter schools. Even states that did not win, Secretary Duncan told me in an interview for the PBS NewHour, were changing their rules. And because every state had failed to meet NCLB’s impossible standards, they needed waivers to avoid being out of compliance, which Duncan granted–as long as the states said they’d follow his directives, the four points listed above. Here’s part of the exchange:
JOHN MERROW: Do you anticipate using some of this stimulus money, this incentive money to help these national standards emerge?
ARNE DUNCAN: Absolutely.
JOHN MERROW: So states will get money if they do this thing that Duncan wants?
ARNE DUNCAN: If you play by these rules, absolutely right. (emphasis added)
Inevitably there came a backlash to excessive power in the Department of Education, in the form of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the law that replaced NCLB. ESSA specifically weakens the Department and gives power back to states and communities. And that’s what Betsy DeVos seems to be ignoring.
The lessons: 1) NO ONE gives up power voluntarily. 2) Even though she talks about parents knowing best, this action suggests that Betsy DeVos believes that she knows better.
There seems to be turmoil everywhere in Washington, but education’s confusion is uniquely widespread. While DeVos favors vouchers and charter schools, many in the charter camp don’t trust her. They are concerned that the Secretary sees charter schools as simply a way-station on the road to vouchers-for-all. Her proposed budget has dollars for charter schools, but it makes drastic cuts in other funds that go to all public schools, including charter schools. Moreover, she seems to love for-profit charter schools, which are anathema to a sizable portion of the charter camp.
Confusion favors DeVos and makes it easier for her to destabilize the system. Now, however, we see that she, like her predecessors, is enjoying having power. Yes, she wants parents to have power…but not, apparently, at the expense of her own.
We’ve heard this song before. It is, in Yogi Berra’s immortal phrase, deja vu all over again.