Joe Nathan column: What does Betsy DeVos mean for Minnesota schools?

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Although it’s too early to know for sure, the confirmation of the new U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, probably means several things for Minnesota’s students, families and schools.

First, the confirmation process reflected and reminded us of the deep disagreements we have about who our leaders should be. U.S. Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., issued a press release describing the just-confirmed DeVos as “fundamentally unqualified to lead the Education Department.” (Franken’s statement is here: http://bit.ly/2jZSOqB.)

Franken’s questioning of DeVos during confirmation hearings showed she appeared to not understand an important issue in testing: whether accountability systems should stress how much growth students in a school are making as measured by standardized tests, or focus on what percentage of students are reaching or exceeding a specific level of knowledge. While it need not be one or the other, this is a basic issue. I agree with Franken: The secretary of education should understand and be able to comment on this.

Sen. Al Franken

Sen. Al Franken

While Franken and many others questioned whether DeVos is qualified, others defended her. Michael J. Petrilli, president of the (conservative) Thomas B. Fordham Institute and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wrote that she will be a “great Education Secretary.” (His opinion can be found here: http://fxn.ws/2kQlodb.)

The confirmation hearing showed a second thing I think we can expect from DeVos: States will have more discretion about how to work with students than they had during the last two administrations, Democratic and Republican.

When responding to questions from senators, DeVos said she wanted to rely on states to determine how to work with students with a disability. She appeared to not understand federal law that mandates certain procedures and policies about how schools must work with these students and their families. This deeply concerns many advocates for these students. But it is part of the overall DeVos’ philosophy of giving more power to states.

Betsy DeVos (Photo courtesy of Betsy DeVos)

Betsy DeVos

Third, DeVos’ record over more than 30 years shows she is a strong advocate of various forms of school choice. This includes both public school choice plans and programs that permit tax funds to follow students, paying their tuition at private and parochial schools. I believe many public school choice plans, including district and charter programs, offer valuable opportunities to students, families and educators. Dual-credit programs also are very helpful.

However, I disagree with DeVos’ support for laws that allow tax funds to pay tuition and other fees at private and parochial K-12 schools. I don’t think public funds should be used to encourage promotion of a religion or that public funds should flow to a school that uses admissions tests to determine which students are accepted to the school. One of the strengths of public education has been that we expect publicly funded schools to be open to all.

How will DeVos reconcile greater discretion for states with her belief in school choice? I think she’ll recommend an increasing amount of federal funds be available to support and encourage, but not require, school choice adopted by state legislatures and local communities. It’s not clear whether those funds will be reallocated from existing program or represent additions to federal support for education.

The more than 1 million phone and email messages that went to Congress about DeVos show that Americans care deeply about education. I hope she will make a priority of tapping into citizens’ deep interest in and commitment to great schools.

 

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].

 

5 Responses to Joe Nathan column: What does Betsy DeVos mean for Minnesota schools?

  1. Peter Smyth says:

    While you got it pretty much right, you missed three things:
    You can’t separate DeVos from the context of Trump. That would take many pages.
    And so many of the votes she received were bought by her donations, including my own Sen. Tim Scott.
    Finally, her Miracles in Michigan really aren’t supported be evidence. Let’s remember what the Texas Miracle got us.

  2. Dr. Tom King says:

    Nobody knows the needs our own students better than our own teachers, districts, and states. We do not need more standardized testing for our non-standardized learners.

    We need more funding for learning options that engage, and better serve our kids and families, whether public, private or charter.

    A rising tide floats all boats.

  3. Gary Gruber says:

    Joe,

    Excellent summary and of course right on target as usual. What is clear is that public education needs to change, to reform itself (most difficult it seems) and reshape itself for kids in this new age, not only in technology but in the context of large global issues. Kids being educated today are going to be the ones to have to solve so many of the problems that are making life on this planet ever more difficult for many, not only in economic terms but in geo-political arenas as well. These kids will need to be better prepared even than we were with new strategies, designs and solutions. Same old, same old won’t work. So, will DeVos have an impact and what kind? Not much from her perch is my hunch.

    Here’s a question for you that I’ve been mulling over of late. Can we have public education without so much government control? Educating the public needs to be redefined and some of the bureaucracy at every level – federal, state and local – needs to be jettisoned in favor of what we know as site based management and leadership by those closest to the action. And finally, here’s another one for you to consider. If it’s true that the top 25 hedge fund managers make more than all 158,000 kindergarten teachers in the U.S. what do you make of that? The income disparities in this country and world wide seem to be getting much worse. I do not wring my hands and say “ain’t it awful” but I am greatly in favor of making some radical changes in education including attracting the best and brightest into teaching by paying them a whole lot more in most cases.

  4. Stan Hacker says:

    I appreciated Joe’s recent column which reflected on the recent confirmation of the new Secretary of Education. It certainly was more objective and to the point than today’s editorial in the StarTribune by Connor Kline. I am recently retired from a life-long career in education as a teacher, coach, leader and consultant in both traditional and charter schools. After completing an over thirty year career in alternative and traditional schools as a teacher and leader I was convinced to get involved in charter schools. I had many misgivings as I was a strong teacher union advocate including many years as a negiotator for union contracts. I have recently re-retired after spending ten years in the charter school world as an Executive Director and consultant for various charter schools. My thoughts and feelings about Charter Schools is a mixed bag. I think many are wonderful and serve very successfully many students that have been neglected from our traditional public schools. On the other hand many are not doing a good job and are probably wasting a good deal of taxpayer money. I have been a strong advocate for the state of Minnesota doing a much more thorough job of creating and administrating charter schools. We have been at the forefront of the Charter School movement but have done, in my opinion, a very poor job of creating accountability for charter school once they are in operation. Minnesota charter schools appear to have a shelf life depending only on their ability to make enough money to keep their doors open. MDE and legislators in Minnesota seem to want keep the charter schools’ operation at arm’s length and let the market decide who is successful and who fails. (most of the time it takes some criminal activity and/or corruption of the charter school leader before the school closes its door) I will add when I was involved in operating an alternative school for Intermediate District 287 I also discovered there was little or no accountability in Minnesota’s alternative school operations. A couple of random thoughts concerning Betsy Devos’s appointment. I am not as disturbed about Trump’s appointments as most progressives are. My experience tells me that appointed secretaries of various departments rarely have a major impact on operations. (Attorney General and Secretary of State are two major exceptions) The other saving grace about Trump’s appointees is that they appear to be so inept and incompetent that they probably will not do major harm. The positive thing about Devos appearing on the scene is , hopefully ,it will shed some light on the charter school world.
    Although it appears that she and many others are not aware that charter schools are “PUBLIC SCHOOLS” and are open to anyone to apply for enrollment. I think progressives need to discriminate between private schools and charter schools and to inform the voting public of the difference. I agree whole-heartedly with Joe’s struggle with providing funding for students to attend private schools. He builds a strong case why that is a very bad plan . There are many, many, examples across the country where vouchers have been initiated and the results were exactly as progressives predicated, the private schools simply take the “cream of the crop” . This leaves many disenfranchised students in worse shape as their schools lose more and more of the
    strongest students and leaders.
    My thoughts and experiences lead me to these conclusions:
    1. Charter schools can and have been a blessing to many students who were not served adequately in traditional school districts.
    2. Minnesota needs to do a much better job of oversight of Charter Schools
    3. Vouchers are a poor choice to deal with the problems that now exist in our public schools
    I applaud Joe Nathan’s column and all of his career efforts to help positively help Minnesota students.
    Reply
    Leave

  5. Darren Beck says:

    No offense meant toward our new ED Secretary, but it feels like one more demonstration of the disregard Pres. Trump has for his own base of support. Secretary DeVos and others are not what was promised during the campaign. They are entirely part of the oligarchy that all presidents ultimately appoint and have serve. Sadly, what is outlined in this article is not just applicable to education, but can be expanded to all cabinet posts.

    While I applaud real populism to an extent, we have all been duped. We have been sold a cheap replica of leadership, of possibility. Can we weather it? Can we overcome it? Yes we can because we are Americans and that is what we do. We weather storms, we overcome adversity. Regardless of political party, our hope should be in 2020 that we have candidates with real American ideas about how to move forward. I hope this because for the past year and for the foreseeable future, this is not an America any of us really want, much less one we can be proud of now.

    Thanks as always, Joe, for causing me to think and act intentionally.

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