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Betsy DeVos to State Chiefs: Time for Ed. Dept. to 'Let You Do Your Job'


In two nearly identical speeches Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told state chiefs and state school board members that she wants to them to be in the driver's seat when it comes to implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

"It's time for the [Education] Department to get out of your way and let you do your job," DeVos told the Council of Chief State School Officers' annual legislative conference. "Once your state has developed a plan to provide a quality education in an environment that is safe and nurturing for all children, you—together with your governors—should be free to educate your students. And that's the real key to ESSA." (DeVos gave almost the same speech to the National Association of State Boards of Education earlier in the day.) 

And she continued to press her number one priority: expanding school choice. She gave a shout-out to John White, Louisiana's state superintendent, for supporting the state's push to expand options for parents, including both vouchers and charters. She also gave Tony Smith, the state chief in Illinois, a nod for his work in helping to broaden student options. 

DeVos declined to offer specifics on how she would broaden choice in an interview after the speech with Chris Minnich, the executive director of the CCSSO, beyond what's in President Donald Trump's budget proposal. The budget calls for $1.4 billion to expand school choice, including $1 billion in portable Title I funding and $250 million for a private school voucher program. It also would expand charter school funding by nearly $170 million, to $500 million.

Minnich noted that CCSSO has released a plan to help states bolster equity. He asked DeVos how she would propose to close achievement gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers.

"I think obviously how the federal government funds different things can be one factor in that," said DeVos. She later noted that the budget includes level funding for state grants to students in special education, and $1 billion in new Title I funds, allocated specifically for a school choice program. She did not mention the $9 billion in proposed cuts to the agency's nearly $70 billion budget.

And she added that states can learn how to close gaps between different groups by looking at what has worked elsewhere. "Sharing information around best practices and what's working in one place that might well work somewhere else ... I think we need to do a much better job of championing what is working well and doing things that are helping students achieve that haven't been tried before," DeVos said.

DeVos also encouraged states to shoot for the April 3 deadline for submitting their ESSA plans "even [if they] don't have every 't' crossed and 'i' dotted." (There's a second deadline on Sept. 18.)

Later DeVos had a closed session with state chiefs. Several said she was asked about the process for reviewing state plans, and she reiterated her preference for local control. One chief also made the case for some of the programs that would be cut under the proposed budget, especially Title II, the teacher quality grants. DeVos, chiefs said, listened intently but did not provide further details. (Cabinet secretaries have been told by the White House not to go beyond the budget information that has already been released, the Hill news organization reported.)

One chief, Oklahoma's Joy Hofmeister, tweeted about the meeting:

For their part, states continued to deliver the message that they are making progress, light federal footprint or no, thank you very much.

In an earlier session, at the CCSSO conference New Mexico's chief, Hanna Skandera, who is widely mentioned as a possible secretary of elementary and secondary education in the Trump administration, talked about her state's push to train principals to work in low-performing schools.

Margie Vandeven, Missouri's commissioner of education, explained her state's approach to preparing and improving teachers. And Ken Wagner, Rhode Island's chief, detailed his state's push to offer students a broader array of courses, through partnerships with non-profits and others. 

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