Today, the Senate confirmed what has surprisingly turned out to be the Trump administration’s most controversial cabinet pick, Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. As I’ve written in Rare before, DeVos has a long history as a school choice advocate and donor. The notable protest of her nomination is proof of the power that teachers unions hold over education reform.
Since Betsy is now Madam Secretary, the question arises of what should the Trump administration’s education policy be. On the campaign trail, Trump made a potpourri of promises — $20 billion of state grants for school choice efforts, merit pay for teachers and Title I funding portability, among others. However, in her nomination, DeVos struck a more modest tone, giving deference to states for policy making and contenting that legislation is needed for any major federal action.
So, what should it be — a more active or passive Department of Education (ED)?
From an execution standpoint, most of Trump’s education proposals, while good ideas, would be difficult to implement successfully on the federal level. Allotting $20 billion towards school choice would create another competition among the states like Race to the Top to amend education policies to the administration’s liking.
Similarly, any sort of national merit-based pay would have to be implemented through the federal government’s carrot or stick approach of incentivizing the states to act by either rewarding or withholding federal funding. These bureaucratic tactics didn’t work under Obama, and they won’t work under Trump.
Title I funding portability, on the other hand, could stand a better chance, since the funding’s allotment is already a function of the federal government. Title I is a provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that provides funding to public schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. As currently administered, Title I grants have little flexibility.
However, an amendment to federal law could allow Title I funding to follow individual low-income students to the school of their choice — be it public, charter, private or maybe even homeschool. Reason education policy analyst and Rare contributor Tyler Koteskey explains why such portability is a positive idea in The Hill:
Tying Title I funds to eligible students relieves administrative burdens by removing the need to justify expenditures. It also ensures that every school gets the same amount of per-student grants for every low-income child they educate. By making these funds portable, wherever these students enroll, low-income pupils will be able to expand their educational options. They will benefit from administrators with new incentives to attract and retain them to get access to the dollars they bring. Portable Title I funding could even be combined with expanding state voucher, tax-credit scholarship programs, and education savings accounts, with proven positive effects on achievement for disadvantaged students to give even more families access to better options.
Of course, as DeVos mentioned in her testimony, such a major change in federal funding allotment would and should require an act of Congress. In short, DeVos will have to be a cheerleader for school choice to get her ideal reforms passed.
Indeed, such a role could be a valuable one for the education reformer. Instead of using the ED as a red tape factory, DeVos could transform her agency into a think tank, compiling data and conducting studies to highlight successful education reforms and school choice efforts in the states. The secretary herself can take her department’s finding to policymakers in the states and on Capitol Hill, fitting into role she’s already familiar with as a school choice advocate.
The teacher’s union is right: DeVos could fundamentally change the ED. But given how poorly the department’s been run for decades, this would be a welcome development.