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A Chance for Betsy DeVos to Promote Choice While Avoiding Vouchers

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has stirred the pot with her continued advocacy for school choice since taking over the Education Department nearly two months ago. A lot of the discussion has been about how DeVos and President Donald Trump might push for vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and expanded charter schools. But there's another option open to DeVos that's specifically supported in the Every Student Succeeds Act, but often flies under the radar when choice is discussed.

This week, the Andrew half of Politics K-12 teamed up with Curriculum Matters blogger Liana Loewus to look at course choice, also known as course access. We reported on a relatively new Idaho program called Fast Forward, in which each student in grades 7-12 gets $4,125 to spend on approved courses for high school, as well as those that are credit-bearing for college. 

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

DeVos has talked up the section of ESSA that allows states to set aside 3 percent of their Title I money to promote "direct student services" including course choice. Although these programs often involve online courses, as Idaho's program shows, they don't have to. And one of her first hires at the department, Michael Brickman, formerly of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has also supported course choice. Estimates vary, but about 15 states allow for some form of course choice. 

As John Watson of the Evergreen Education Group (a consulting firm) told us, course access is a potentially powerful tool to help underserved students, but it could also massively disrupt the basic concept of schooling in several ways and could be tough to implement successfully.

Margie Yeager, the director of policy at Chiefs for Change, a policy group consisting of state and district leaders, said her group has been encouraging states in their ESSA plans to think about using the direct student services set-aside to help their overall school improvement strategies. Although she said course choice can be useful in many ways, its lower profile also means that it needs be talked up more in order for more states to get interested. 

"This isn't a big part of the conversation right now, to be very candid. But it needs more momentum if it's going to become more of a thing," Yeager said of course access. " ... Without specific prompting, it may not have been on folks' radar in every state."

Photo: Sydney Bruner, a junior at Prairie High School in Cottonwood, Idaho, studies for a class presentation. The state is one of several that offer course choice. (Jerome Pollos for Education Week)

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