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Betsy DeVos and Superintendents' Group Discuss Federal Budget; ESSA

This week we wrote about some districts that are trying to figure out how to engage the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, says his organization—which represents many of the nation's top-level school district leaders—has always made it a priority to work with the secretary of education, regardless of the views of the individual who holds the post or the administration. That's the message the organization is conveying to its members.

"[DeVos] is the secretary of education, so for the foreseeable future, as long as she is in that position, she is going to be responsible for ...  how the federal government is going to be working toward education," Domenech said.  "We have to work with her."

Domenech and his staff sat down with DeVos and members of her team last week to review some of the AASA's priorities, Domenech said. It was a kind of getting-to-know-you meeting for both, he said.

But the group was also keen to hear about the Trump administration's budget priorities and how cuts might impact K-12. According to Domenech, the secretary said that she "had not yet begun to engage in the budget process and so she had nothing to share with us." Since then, Trump has said he'll seek massive increase in military spending and a corresponding cut to domestic programs in fiscal 2018, as Andrew Ujifusa reports over at Politics K-12. This has education advocates very worried.

There were no concrete actions from the meeting, Domenech said.

 "It was a cordial meeting," he said. "She is a very pleasant individual. We communicated well, and we certainly look forward to the opportunity to maintaining and continuing a working relationship."

The AASA sought the meeting by reaching out to DeVos' office, he said.

The organization represents superintendents, who are "indeed the chief education officers in every community in this country," he said. "It's important for the department and the secretary to have that relationship and have that connection and be aware of what's happening in our public schools."

The framework for the discussion was a letter the AASA sent to the Trump transition team in January, laying out the organization's priorities, Domenech said. In the correspondence, the AASA said that it stood ready to work with President Trump and his secretaries to "ensure that the 13,000 school districts we represent and the children they educate are well-served by your administration."

That letter reiterated the organization's support for local control over education issues and concerns that some of the regulations put forth by the Obama administration since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act would chip away at that local flexibility. It also addressed the organization's interest in reducing administrative burdens on districts, which the organization says grew under the Obama administration; rolling back unfunded mandates and onerous financial regulations; fully-funding IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Act; reversing teacher-preparation regulations that place heavy burdens on districts; ensuring that infrastructure spending in the Trump administration includes school districts; and supporting rural schools and career and technical education programs.

The letter urged the administration to consider the "practical and financial" implications of a massive expansion of school vouchers—which is something President Trump pledged to do as a candidate—and to ensure that education policies "strengthen and support" the 50.4 million students who attend public schools.

"There are many things that we support and we agree with and we will work cooperatively on," Domenech said.  "But we also indicated that there are issues we do not support. One is any attempt to divert public dollars from public education to go to non-public [schools.]"

A big area of cooperation is likely to be around local control.

"We were very much against the intrusion of the federal government into local education matters, and we welcome the opportunity for that responsibility to go back to the state and go back to the school districts, so the school districts and state can have a bigger voice in setting the education agenda," he said.  "And that's what we have heard from the secretary, and we have heard the same thing from our new [chairwoman of the House committee on education] Virginia Foxx and [U.S. Sen. Lamar] Alexander has been expressed the same thing."

He invited DeVos to the organization's advocacy gathering in July, during which superintendents and district representatives normally meet with legislators, department of education staffers, and others, Domenech said.  Some secretaries have spoken at the gathering, and Domenech said an invitation will be extended to DeVos.

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