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Could Betsy DeVos' Pitch to Expand School Choice Help Dual Enrollment?

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Fans of early college and dual enrollment programs have been high-fiving each other over a line buried deep in a recent federal document. 

Here's why: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sees dual enrollment and other programs that help high school kids earn college credit as a form of school choice, her favorite K-12 policy. What's more, she's hoping to steer competitive federal grants to programs that want to offer or expand dual enrollment.

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DeVos—like every other education secretary—gets to choose certain "priorities" for the Education Department's competitive grants, which add up to more than $700 million annually. DeVos has proposed eleven, including boosting STEM education, bolsetering literacy, and helping military-connected students.

But number one on the secretary' list of priorities is this: "Empowering Families to Choose a High-Quality Education that Meets Their Child's Unique Needs." And DeVos doesn't just define that as just private school vouchers or charter schools.

Also on the list: magnet schools, home-schooling, part-time coursework or career prepartion, and dual or concurrent enrollment and early college high schools that "enable secondary school students to begin earning credit toward a postsecondary degree or credential prior to high school graduation."

Political Landscape

Democrats on Capitol Hill have already taken aim at the secretary's plan to prioritize choice, saying that it would steer federal funding to programs to unproven "privatization programs."

But there is bipartisan support for dual enrollment programs, their fans say. And there's already a lot of interest in these programs at the state level and even on Capitol Hill, through bills like this one.

"It is one of those issues that pulls together Republicans and Democrats," said Lexi Barrett, the senior director of national education policy for Jobs for the Future and a member of the steering committee of the College in High School Alliance. That's a coalition of more than 60 national organizations that support high quality dual enrollment programs.

To be sure, this is unlikely to mean a ton of new money will pour into dual enrollment programs. After all, the secretary has ten other proposed priorities. And while some of the department's competitive grant programs allow a lot of flexibility for the secretary (think the Education Innovation and Research program, the successor to Investing in Innovation), others are much more targeted.

Even before the priorities came out, DeVos had been sending signals that dual enrollment was important to her. For instance, she visisted an early college high school in Gary, Ind. on her "Rethining Schools Tour." But the priority is a sign that now it seems clear that she's willing to put at least some of her agency's money behind the policy.

"We see this as being an important signal," said Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks, and another member of the College High School Alliance steering committee.

And this signal from the Trump administration could help provide momentum for dual enrollment and other early college programs going as Congress works towards renewing higher education and career and technical education programs, Pace said.

Importantly, the priority list isn't the final word. The education community has 30 days to comment on DeVos' suggestions. 

Photo: Accompanied by Principal Anthony Cherry, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos is greeted by students at 21st Century Charter School on Sept. 15 in Gary, Ind. (John J. Watkins/The Times via AP)

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