Watch: Rethinking Federal Intervention in K-12 Education

The Heritage Foundation and Pioneer Institute co-hosted an event entitled “Rethinking Federal Intervention in K-12 Education” held at The Heritage Foundation on Thursday. 

The description for the event states: “After recent historic declines in student achievement following decades of increased federal involvement in K-12 education, it is time to re-think federal intervention in education.”

Panelists included:

  • Theodore Rebarber – CEO of AccountabilityWorks
  • Neal McCluskey – Director, Center for Educational Freedom, Cato Institute
  • Brad Thomas – Senior Education Policy Advisor, U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce
  • Patrick Wolf – Distinguished Professor of Education Policy, University of Arkansas
  • Jamie Gass – Director of the Center for School Reform, Pioneer Institute
  • Lindsey Burke – Director, Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education, Heritage Foundation

Watch the panel discussion below:

Magnet Schools, School Choice and the Coleman Report

Dr. Dennis D. Cantu Health Science Magnet School – Laredo, TX
Photo Credit: Billy Hathorn (CC-By-SA 3.0)

A commemorative issue of Education Next published in the spring of 2016 was devoted to comments on James Coleman’s 1966 report titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity.”  In his article in that issue, economist and education researcher Eric Hanushek quoted the report’s central conclusion:

…That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

Despite the strong conclusion of the 1966 Coleman Report (commissioned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964) that family background carries more weight than schools and teachers in explaining academic achievement, almost all efforts to improve academic achievement in low achieving students since then have resulted in educational policies, programs, and interventions, and in recent years these initiatives have targeted all students from preschool to college, not just low achievers.   

However, despite the billions if not trillions of dollars that have been spent on these public and private educational initiatives, they seem to have been mostly ineffective in turning low achievers into higher achievers—to judge by scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. High school scores in reading and mathematics are about the same as they were over 50 years ago.  Educators have never figured out how to turn massive numbers of underachieving adolescents into higher achievers. It has been easier for educators and policy makers to tell legislators they needed to appropriate more money to implement their ideas for educational “reform” (as does former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in his just released book How Schools Work) than to explain why their ideas hadn’t worked.

For reasons that are unclear in the historical record, when public officials chose to spend their energies on policies addressing “family background,” they spent it on just a small part of “family background”—low achievers’ peer environment.  And they chose to do so by integrating low achieving minority students with higher achievers to achieve racial integration. The assumption seemed to be that low academic achievement in black children reflected in part the influence of their peers through racial isolation in the schools (e.g., in homogeneous remedial classes in elementary or middle schools or in a basic high school track beginning in grade 9, or before the Brown vs Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court in1954, in segregated schools).  

Many cities undertook to integrate schools with different populations.  Some did it through compulsory busing schemes.  Some did it through redesigning attendance boundary lines.  Compulsory schemes often led to violence, chaos, and what was called “white flight.”  In Boston, they also led to middle class black flight.   Because they assumed that seeing and hearing higher (white) achievers in their classes would motivate low (black) achievers to work harder (even though there was no evidence that this had ever happened on a small or large scale), these compulsory schemes were insulting, to boot.   Unhappy parents placed their children in private schools or neighboring district schools or moved altogether. Peaceful or not, compulsory school integration did not turn out to be a panacea for low achievement, especially if it caused white and black middle-class students to leave the integrated schools.

In some cities, “magnet” high schools were developed allowing high school age students to opt for the kind of high school coursework and specific career training they thought they wanted.  Some magnet high schools were “traditional” in the sense that they already were in urban areas.  The goal was to attract higher-achieving students from elsewhere to these urban schools-turned-into-magnet-schools.  Some magnet schools were higher-performing “destination” schools converted to magnet schools that sought to attract low-achieving students from elsewhere. Some were built from scratch.  Admission could be based on a lottery, an interview, or an application, or on combinations of these methods.  Many new vocational/technical high schools were also established starting in the 1970s and received a large Congressional appropriation (the first authorization of the Carl D. Perkins Act) in 1984, with admission more likely based on an application than on winning a seat by means of a lottery.  

Evaluative research on magnet high schools as public schools of “choice” has found mixed results. Over the years, many contributed to higher academic achievement and increased high school graduation rates for its low-income participants compared with their peers in regular high schools; others did not.

The extent to which magnet schools have contributed to racial integration (their major purpose) is unclear. A comparison of the outcomes of traditional or destination magnet high schools can be located but not a comparison of magnet high schools with charter high schools with respect to academic outcomes and integration (both types of high schools can be public schools of choice).

Today, magnet schools and career/technical high schools may be part of a useful array of public schools of “choice” in large urban districts, although, mysteriously, both types of schools are rarely mentioned in discussions of school choice  Why this is the case is not explained.  Both magnet high schools and vocational/technical high schools are schools of choice, both types depend on voluntary enrollment thus avoiding the violence and chaos that compulsory busing or redesigned attendance boundary lines often entail, and both types of high schools may be part of a centrally administered school district thus not alienating an already established teacher union.  Both types of schools are as accountable to local voters and school boards as regular comprehensive high schools are in a large urban school district. So why have they been so ignored by the research on school choice and by educators still seeking to address the Coleman report?  Although there are few in Boston, the national movement behind them still exists. Perhaps they deserve more attention as concerns about a “re-segregated” school system in Boston arise.  Perhaps they deserve more attention as schools of choice that already exist and do not seem to be as controversial as charter schools have become.

DeVos Speaks to Conservative High School Students

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke at the Turning Point USA High School Leadership Summit on Thursday in Washington, DC.

I wanted to highlight a couple of excerpts of her speech.

She first addressed educational freedom:

Way too many in the education world believe they need more involvement, more intrusion, more mandates, more money, more government.

But what do we believe? We believe in more freedom!

We are committed to expanding education freedom for all families across America. You’ve probably heard me described as “pro-school choice.” Well, I am, but choice in education is not defined by picking this building or that school, using this voucher or that scholarship. And it’s not public versus private. Parochial versus charter. Homeschool versus virtual.

It shouldn’t be “versus” anything, because choice in education is bigger than that.

Choice is really about freedom! Freedom to learn, and to learn differently. Freedom to explore. Freedom to fail, to learn from falling and to get back up and try again. It’s freedom to find the best way for you to learn and grow…to find the engaging combination that unleashes your curiosity and unlocks your individual potential.

You and your families already exercise freedom when you make choices about next steps for education after high school. I suspect many of you are going through this process right now.

You compare options, and make an informed decision.

If you choose to go to Georgetown, are you somehow against the Wolverines or the Fighting Irish? Well, you’re not — except when they’re on the basketball court.

If you decide to go to George Washington University, are you somehow against public universities? Of course not!

No one criticizes those choices. No one thinks choice in higher education is wrong. So why is it wrong in elementary school, middle school, or high school?

Truth is: there is nothing wrong with that! There is nothing wrong with wanting to pursue the education that’s right for you!

First, how about educational choice within public schools? She talks a lot about freedom from mandates and flexibility, but we are still waiting to see something, anything tangible headed in that direction from the Trump administration.

States still have to play “Mother, May I?” Utah had a request for flexibility denied. Schools still face top-down mandates. Parents still face difficulty in many school districts and states when attempting to opt their students out of assessments.

When are going to see real freedom from centralized control?

Secondly, federal programs can never truly expand freedom; they can only ultimately restrict it. Have we ever seen federal money come without strings attached? No. I favor school choice, but it should not come from the federal level. DeVos highlights choices that students have in college, but she neglects to mention all of the federal regulations colleges face from allowing federal student aid.

No thanks.

She then gives a nod to workforce development and personalized learning, she said:

It’s time to reorient our approach to education. We need a paradigm shift. A rethink.

“Rethink” means we question everything to ensure nothing limits you from pursuing your passion, and achieving your potential.

You – and all students – deserve learning environments that are agile, relevant, exciting. You should be able to pursue customized, self-paced, and challenging life-long learning journeys.

I recently visited a SkillsUSA conference where students competed with each other in a wide range of activities they had learned about: developing computer games, building homes, welding, baking, graphic design – to name just a few. They were all clearly excited about what they were doing!

And last week, I met a 70-year-old man who was in his fourth career. His first was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He went on to work in the defense contracting industry, followed by another career in banking. He found retirement to be quite boring, so he learned the necessary skills to drive big rigs across the country. And he said his fourth career is his best one yet!

So be open to possibilities that aren’t pre-planned. I suspect some – or maybe many — of you feel like your life thus far has been ordered for you. Class to class, grade to grade, graduation to graduation. But you will find that nothing – not your families, your careers, your faith journeys — is as predictable as it seems.

So what you learn is about much more than just acquiring “skills” or diplomas. You are your most important resource. Your education is about you. It’s about your aspirations and abilities. Your passions and pursuits. Your ingenuity and what you do with it is what gives life to your education.

We’ve had too much “rethink(ing)” in education circles, we need to go back to basics. Schools need to address classical education. It’s not just about a student’s interest. It’s not about skills. Kids need content, and the pendulum is swinging wildly away from that.

No Mention of K-12 Education in Trump’s First SOTU Address

President Donald Trump did not explicitly address K-12 education in his first State of the Union address last night and had very little to say about education in general. He briefly plugged an investment in workforce development.

He said:

As tax cuts create new jobs, let us invest in workforce development and job training.  Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential.

Out of one hour and twenty minutes or so that is it.

While workforce development has been tied to K-12 education, his focus appears to be on vocational schools which could impact K-12 education but will probably have to do with post-high school education opportunities. Based on what he said it is hard to discern what the particular policy will look like.

Then we have Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ statement after the State of the Union address.

“America must do better to prepare our students for success in the 21st-century economy. I join the President in calling on Congress to act in the best interest of students and expand access to more education pathways,” she said.

It was probably difficult for her communications team to find anything to say about his State of the Union address. I’m surprised he didn’t make even a brief comment about school choice.

On one hand, this could be seen as a good sign. K-12 education should NOT be a priority for the President or the federal government.

On the other hand, I would have appreciated comments from President Trump about how he planned to further cut down the federal regulatory environment that burdens public schools. I also would have appreciated comments about how he planned to return more power back to states and local school boards.

I’m afraid his silence means further status quo.

One Argument Not to Make About School Choice

I generally like to shy away from the school choice debate over here mainly because there are diverging opinions about it among our community. Even though I personally favor some school choice programs (and the idea that parents should have control) there are valid concerns about strings being attached to school choice programs.

A prime example was how Indiana’s voucher program pushed Common Core into private schools in the Hoosier State. So there are legitimate arguments against certain programs, and I think almost all of us can oppose any school choice efforts coming from the federal level.

The argument that Katherine Stewart at The New York Times makes isn’t one of those arguments, however. She said that school choice, aka “attacks” on public schools, harkens back to racism

She writes:

But the attacks on “government schools” have a much older, darker heritage. They have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism — and those roots are still visible today.

I find it ironic that she addresses “anti-Catholic sentiment” when the biggest road blocks for school choice is Blaine Amendment language adopted by many states that actually comes from “anti-Catholic sentiment.”

David French at the National Review responds to Stewart’s piece.

Why do libertarians and Christians intentionally increasingly use the term “government schools” to describe public education? First, because it’s true. Public schools are government schools. Second, because it’s clarifying. Too many Americans are stuck in a time warp, believing that the local school is somehow “their” school. They don’t understand that public education is increasingly centralized — teaching a uniform curriculum, teaching a particular, secular set of values, and following priorities set in Washington, not by their local school board. The phrase is helpful for breaking through idealism and getting parents to analyze and understand the gritty reality of modern public education. The phrase works.

And so it must be squashed. And there’s no better way to discredit any modern idea than by tying it to a Confederate past. It’s certainly easier than addressing the core of the fundamental idea — that it’s better for America if more parents enjoy the educational choices that wealthy progressives take for granted.

I don’t agree with everything French says in his piece, but it stands to reason that we do not prop up straw man arguments to respond to a policy we do not like. Ultimately parents who want school choice like it because they want options and control over how their children are educated and it has nothing to do with race.

(Video) School Choice: The Hidden Dangers for All

This video is the third in a series launched by FreedomProject Media. They record a roundtable with two activists that I’m certain most of our readers are familiar: Lynne Taylor from North Carolina and Kirsten Lombard from Wisconsin.  Mary Black is the moderator. In part one they talk about a shift in the education model to a workforce development model. In the second video, they discuss student data mining.

Below is the description they give on YouTube:

School choice sounds great. Yet, it has a hidden meaning that is not widely understood by the public, and it’s that hidden meaning that is shaping education policy in Washington, D.C., and the 50 states. The true and hidden meanings of school choice are both discussed, along with how language in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) ensnares students and their families, including private and homeschoolers.

This video falls out of our purview, but for the sake of continuity, I’m sharing it here along with the other videos in this series. Our community and readership do not all share the same opinion of school choice. I think we all agree on the risk of strings being attached, but we don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to specific programs, particularly at the state level.

So Kirsten and Lynne’s views do not necessarily represent Truth in American Education and its advocates.

President Trump’s First Budget Reflects U.S. Dept. of Education Cuts

President Donald Trump released his first budget’s blueprint that just includes discretionary spending today. The U.S. Department of Education along with most cabinet level department and agencies will experience a significant budget cut in FY 2018 should Congress approve his full budget as is (which will be released later this Spring).

His budget provides $59 billion in discretionary spending for FY 2018 which reflects a reduction of $9 Billion or 13 percent of the annualized 2017 continuing resolution levels. The budget reflects President Trump’s commitment to school choice, but also reflects the elimination of numerous programs within the Department.

Here are the highlights:

  • Increases investments in public and private school choice by $1.4 billion compared to the 2017 annualized CR level, ramping up to an annual total of $20 billion, and an estimated $100 billion including matching State and local funds. This additional investment in 2018 includes a $168 million increase for charter schools, $250 million for a new private school choice program, and a $1 billion increase for Title I, dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system of student-based budgeting and open enrollment that enables Federal, State, and local funding to follow the student to the public school of his or her choice.
  • Maintains approximately $13 billion in funding for IDEA programs to support students with special education needs. This funding provides States, school districts, and other grantees with the resources needed to provide high quality special education and related services to students and young adults with disabilities.
  • Eliminates the $2.4 billion Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program, which is poorly targeted and spread thinly across thousands of districts with scant evidence of impact.
  • Eliminates the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which supports before- and after-school programs as well as summer programs, resulting in savings of $1.2 billion from the 2017 annualized CR level. The programs lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives, such as improving student achievement.
  • Eliminates the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, a less well- targeted way to deliver need-based aid than the Pell Grant program, to reduce complexity in nancial student aid and save $732 million from the 2017 annualized CR level.
  • Safeguards the Pell Grant program by level funding the discretionary appropriation while proposing a cancellation of $3.9 billion from unobligated carryover funding, leaving the Pell program on sound footing for the next decade.
  • Protects support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions, which provide opportunities for communities that are often underserved, maintaining $492 million in funding for programs that serve high percentages of minority students.
  • Reduces Federal Work-Study signi cantly and reforms the poorly-targeted allocation to ensure funds go to undergraduate students who would bene t most.
  • Provides $808 million for the Federal TRIO Programs and $219 million for GEAR UP, resulting in savings of $193 million from the 2017 annualized CR level. Funding to TRIO programs is reduced in areas that have limited evidence on the overall effectiveness in improving student outcomes. The Budget funds GEAR UP continuation awards only, pending the completion of an upcoming rigorous evaluation of a portion of the program.
  • Eliminates or reduces over 20 categorical programs that do not address national needs, duplicate other programs, or are more appropriately supported with State, local, or private funds, including Striving Readers, Teacher Quality Partnership, Impact Aid Support Payments for Federal Property, and International Education programs.

Is Common Core Off President Trump’s Education Agenda?

President Donald Trump mentioned education briefly during his first address to Congress and his remarks did not include mention of Common Core or shrinking the federal role in education.

He said:

Education is the civil rights issue of our time. I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.

Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather.  As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice.  But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning — a great learning center — with the help of a tax credit and a scholarship program.

Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college.  Later this year she will get her master’s degree in social work.  We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha.

I’m personally not against school choice (I speak for myself here, not TAE). I do believe parents should have greater ability to choose, and not only those who can afford it. That said I like it at the state and local levels, not at the federal level. The thought of a federal voucher program concerns me. The only thing I really want to hear from any President about education is how they are going to shrink the federal role in education. I haven’t heard that yet. The only thing I’ve heard is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos say is that Every Student Succeeds Act did away with “the notion of Common Core.”

No it didn’t.

Then she said the approval of state plans is a “good and appropriate role” for the federal government.

Oi Vey!

This is the OPPOSITE of what I wanted to see out of the Trump administration. If he wants to encourage school choice what he should work to block grant all federal education money to the states to do with how they see fit without strings attached including using it for school choice programs if the states so choose to do that.

Four Takeaways from Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation Hearing

I watched the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, before the Senate HELP Committee.

I wrote a recap at Caffeinated Thoughts last night, but I wanted to further clarify my thoughts here the morning after here.

1. We still don’t know where Betsy DeVos stands on a whole host of issues.

This is largely the Senators’ fault. Republicans went into the hearing planning to praise her and ask softball questions. Democrats planned to ask gotcha questions many of which have absolutely nothing to do with the position.

Does Betsy DeVos making (or her family making) a donation to Focus on the Family tell me what kind of a Education Secretary she will be? No.

Does leading, rapid fire questions about her opposition to Common Core help give me a picture of whether she will truly shrink the U.S. Department of Education or just give lip service to it? No.

There were only a handful of good questions asked and most of them were, in my opinion, not the right questions. Only one of the proposed 11 questions I submitted last month was asked. U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) both asked a version of this – should the federal government mandate school choice programs?

Her answer was essentially no, the federal government shouldn’t dictate school choice programs to the states.

But the other questions I have are still unanswered which is disappointing. There was an opportunity to have an in depth conversation about the role of the federal government in education and that opportunity was squandered.

2. Betsy DeVos was clearly unprepared for the hearing.

Her answers lacked depth. She did not demonstrate knowledge about the growth vs. proficiency debate question that U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) asked. Granted she didn’t have to agree with his conclusions (he praised computer adaptive tests), but she at least should have known about the issue.

She didn’t appear to have knowledge about the IDEA law. That doesn’t mean she needed to agree with Democrat conclusions about it, but at least know what it is so she can articulate her differences of opinion.

Her answer on gun-free zones in schools (which I’m against by the way) was wanting. I think people are taking her comment about grizzlies out of context, but she could have provided a far better answer.

She didn’t appear ready to defend her record of education advocacy in Michigan.

These are things she should have known were coming, but just appeared unready in my opinion.

Regarding equal accountability for private schools receiving taxpayer money I appreciate that she was not in favor of that because, well, this is exactly how Common Core was slipped into private schools. Many private schools also can’t afford some of the federal requirements under IDEA for instance. Parents should know this going in. Instead of “accountability” to the federal government it would have great if DeVos could have turned that around and say they do have accountability – to the parents who send their students there.

What was clear from this hearing is that she wants to provide opportunities for students, but I’m still not clear exactly what kind of school choice programs she wants to pursue.

3. “That should be left up to the state.”

I do have to give DeVos props for this statement that I heard frequently during the hearing and it was heartening. I’m still unclear as how this sentiment will actually be applied should she win confirmation, but it was still good to hear it.  This statement could have been used for every question because ultimately there is no constitutional role for the federal government in education – none.

4. Confirmation hearings are largely worthless.

Democrats complained that they were not given enough time. I agree. Five minutes per Senator is not enough. However, five minutes per Senator also wasn’t enough for Arne Duncan and John B. King. They’ve dumbed the process down. While Chairman Alexander was right to apply this consistently, they have established a bad precedent. Time that nominees spend privately with committee members is not for public consumption, the hearing is all we have.

That said none of the Senators made good use of the time they actually did have.

Conclusion: Ultimately this hearing did nothing to dissuade her critics. It also did nothing to change the minds of those supporting her. What it failed to do is provide Americans with more information about what kind of Education Secretary she will be.

Below is a recording of the full confirmation hearing if you are so inclined to watch.

11 Questions for Betsy DeVos


Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, appeared at a “thank you” rally in Grand Rapids, MI last Friday with Trump. At the rally both Trump and DeVos said it was time to end Common Core. DeVos specifically said, “This means letting states set their own high standards and finally putting an end to the federalized Common Core.”

While there is mounting opposition to her nomination both from the teachers unions and from some of my compatriots in the fight against Common Core I highly doubt her nomination will be derailed. Even if it is derailed I have to wonder at what cost?

Despite my doubt about an effort to block her nomination, I don’t feel our skepticism is misplaced. While I personally have chosen to be optimistic, I’m cautiously so. DeVos’ only track record on Common Core until she was nominated was funding and serving on boards that advocated for it, including one organization that was part of a collaborative effort to fight against the repeal bill offered in Michigan. Yes we’re told that she was just a part of those groups on behalf of school choice, but for those of us who have been in the trenches fighting Common Core it leaves a bitter taste in our mouth that is not easily lost.

The ball is in DeVos’ court. Talk is cheap and the only true way to gain trust is through positive action. In the meantime, as she goes through Senate confirmation hearings and spends time meeting with individual senators, it would be helpful to have the answers for these questions especially since she is not doing any interviews beforehand.

  1. Is it the role of the U.S. Department of Education to mandate states to have “higher standards” even if they don’t dictate what those are?
  2. What constitutes “higher standards”? If the Feds were not involved with Common Core would you have seen those as “higher standards”?
  3. Since each state had to adopt Common Core what does “putting an end to the federalized Common Core” look like?
  4. Should the Federal government mandate assessments?
  5. What is your view of the Every Student Succeeds Act? Did that legislation go far enough to return local control?
  6. How will you shrink the U.S. Department of Education? Do you believe the Department should eventually close?
  7. Do you plan to rescind many of the “Dear Colleague” letters sent during the Obama administration?
  8. What is the purpose of education?
  9. Should the federal government mandate school choice programs?
  10. What strings would/should federal money for school choice have?
  11. What do you plan to do to protect student data privacy? How will you strengthen FERPA?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, what would you add?