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Betsy DeVos Sees Choice-Friendly Florida as a K-12 Model for the Nation

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By Alyson Klein and Andrew Ujifusa

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may have helped to create the charter sector in her home state of Michigan. But in a recent interview she singled out another state—Florida—as offering a great blueprint for the country.

"I would point to Florida as being one that has had a variety of options for the longest period of time," DeVos told Frank Beckmann, a conservative radio talk show host on WJR, based in Michigan. She said the state, which has charters, also offers both a tax credit scholarship, something DeVos and company may push in Washington, potentially through legislation previously introduced by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, and vouchers for students in special education.

Michigan hasn't been able to offer the same kind of voucher program as Floridabecause its state constitution prohibits public funds from being used for religious purposes. By contrast, Florida's vouchers for special needs students can be used at schools affiliated with religious institutions. Michigan, which also has charters, recently started experimenting with Education Savings Accounts, which allow parents and students to "put [their] own customized plan together" for education, DeVos said. 

"Florida is a good and growing example of what can happen when you have a robust array of choices," DeVos said Wednesday. She noted that 40 percent of the students in Florida go to schools that are different from the one they may be zoned for. The state has one of the nation's least-restrictive open enrollment laws.  

DeVos does have some Florida ties. The American Federation for Children, which she chaired before becoming secretary, is active in the Sunshine State, and she sat on the board of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Educational Excellence. And two of the folks who have joined DeVos at the department—Josh Venable and Andrew Kossack—each worked for Bush's foundation or for Bush.

The Sunshine State's performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress—known as the nation's report card—is also higher than Michigan's in most subjects. Michigan performed below the national average in 4th and 8th grade math, and in 4th grade reading. Florida bested the national average in 4th grade reading and math, but dipped below it in 8th grade math.

On Common Core

Beckmann asked DeVos about President Donald Trump's campaign trail promise to get rid of the Common Core State Standards, something Kellyanne Conway, Trump's counselor, doubled down on in a recent interview with CNN.

DeVos said that's basically already been accomplished through the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed more a year before Trump took office.

The law, she said "essentially does away with the notion of the common core." She said ESSA "encourages states to set forth their own levels of achievement, expectations, and it asks states to put a plan together that demonstrates how they are going to show that students are achieving what they should achieve." 

One really important point DeVos didn't delve into on the radio show: ESSA doesn't actually get rid of the common core at all. Instead, the law prohibits the federal government from telling states which standards they can and can't use. States that want to stick with the common core can, and right now the standards are in place in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

DeVos has made it clear she understands the law on this point, in answer to a question from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee. She didn't point out the nuance to Beckmann, though, when he said he hadn't realized ESSA "took common core out of equation."

On Early-Childhood Education

Beckmann asked DeVos about her plans on this issue. She told him that most of the federal responsibility for early learning is actually at the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Education Department.

But she said she looked forward to helping the new HHS secretary, Tom Price, "make those programs more effective"  and "a whole lot more oriented to early literacy."

On ESSA

DeVos sees the law as an opportunity to move forward on local control.

The law "really does give the states and local districts a whole lot more flexibility and a lot more control over how they deliver education and education opportunities to the students in those states," DeVos said. "I think that's really important because it allows us to highlight the states that are doing particularly well, that are being innovative, that are also having high expectations of excellence. It also allows us to point out areas in states where they are really frankly not living up to where they should be on behalf of kids."

DeVos didn't provide any specifics of what exactly it would mean for a state not to fulfill expectations, or how she would flag high- and low-performing states. That could be done through speeches, interviews, and secretarial visits, or something more formal. And she didn't say how carefully she planned to review states' ESSA plans, which they'll begin submitting in April. 

On School Turnarounds 

Beckmann asked DeVos about the federal role in turning around low-performing  schools, which was a huge issue during the Obama era as the administration rolled out its now-defunct version of the School Improvement Grant program.

DeVos said that the federal role so far has been about money and regulations that, in her view, were too restrictive.

"I think the federal government's role has traditionally been in the form of Title I funds and a variety of other funding sources, particularly targeted to certain communities," DeVos said. "It's also been frankly, around regulation. And there's been too much control and too much regulation of state and local authorities over the years. I think the mentality that has grown to a large extent in some places is an overcompliance orientation, rather than an orientation around a can-do, what do we need to do here for the students in our locale, to do the right thing for them and offer them the greatest opportunity for success."

DeVos didn't wade into this in the brief interview, but she—and any future education secretaries—are prohibited under ESSA from telling states and districts how they can or can't turn around their lowest-performing schools. States and districts can do whatever they think will work, as long as the strategy has some evidence behind it. 

Conservative Media Strategy

Like other radio hosts who DeVos has spoken to since taking office, Beckmann made it clear at the top of the program that he's a big fan of the Trump administration and DeVos. Before he launched into his interview with DeVos, he accused other media of trying to launch a coup to take down the president, and warned reporters that if Trump stepped down they'd be stuck with Vice President Mike Pence, not 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. And he said that DeVos went through a "greater grilling" to become education secretary than Clinton, the former secretary of state, did over the Benghazi attacks. 

Communication experts we talked to said DeVos may be trying to get comfortable with her voice by giving her first interviews to friendly outlets. But if she wants to get a broader coalition behind her ideas, she'll have to start talking to other types of media. 

Want more? Listen to full interview here:

Community Colleges

DeVos has also been getting out and about in Washington, giving short speeches to the Magnet Schools Association Wednesday and to the Community College National Legislative Summit Thursday. 

In that Thursday appearance, DeVos linked community colleges to economic growth and said they would play a key role in Trump's push to create 25 million jobs in the U.S. and increase the annual economic growth rate to 4 percent. 

"You are nimble. You are inclusive. You are entrepreneurial," DeVos said. "You offer flexibility and extra support to learners who are balancing responsibilities at home, at school, at work."

DeVos pointed out that Trump's 100-day plan for early policy action includes an emphasis on vocational education, which community colleges "excel at providing" she said. She also praised early-college for allowing students to earn associates' degrees more quickly.

In a brief reference to the controversy surrounding her nomination, DeVos said that she did not view the "flurry" of reactions to her in a negative light, but saw them instead as "expressions of passion" from those involved in education. 


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