Betsy DeVos, selected for Education Secretary

Betsy DeVos, selected for Education Secretary by President-elect Donald Trump speaks in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Dec. 9. Her confirmation hearing is slated for Jan 11.

Associated Press

With a confirmation hearing for education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos slated for next week, her advocacy for school choice initiatives in Detroit has taken center stage.

But DeVos, a Michigan billionaire and longtime education activist, indicated her support for an education proposal that split Republicans during the passage of a new federal education law, according to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who championed the plan.

The proposal, known as the A-PLUS Act, would have allowed states to opt out of federal accountability programs and receive their federal funding in the form of block grants, which would allow schools to spend the money with greater discretion. Federal funds are often tied to specific programs.

Daines and his Montana counterpart, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, met with DeVos in separate meetings Thursday. Her hearing is slated for Jan. 11.

The act was proposed as an amendment to the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind last year. The new law was hailed for expanding local control, but Daines argued that it didn’t go far enough and voted against it.

“We want the parents and teachers and students to lead in education instead of a bunch of D.C. bureaucrats,” he said Thursday. “The focus now is to get Betsy DeVos confirmed by the U.S. Senate.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who shepherded the bill’s passage, opposed Daines’ plan.

“This is unnecessary, misintentioned, won't pass, and undermines the bipartisan agreement that we've reached,” he said shortly before it was voted down.

School choice

Most debate surrounding DeVos' nomination has zeroed in on her record in Michigan, where she helped establish one of the largest charter-school programs in the nation. She consistently advocated for using public money to pay for private education, arguing that it gave students options to escape low-achieving schools, similar to a $20 billion school choice proposal President-elect Donald Trump floated on the campaign trail.

It’s unclear how much of an impact a federal school choice program would have on rural states like Montana, where it would be a major departure from current policy.

Montana dipped a toe into the school choice pool in 2015 when it passed a law allowing a $150 tax credit for donations that support nonprofit scholarship organizations that help pay for students to attend private schools, but even that law is under legal challenge.

Most public school advocates in Montana frame school choice as a policy that would shift public money into private schools — public schools would be harmed as students and funding were siphoned off, with a disproportionate effect on rural schools with small enrollments, assuming they had other nearby education options.

“You start pulling kids out of these schools, and it might be for the best intentions, but it impacts more people negatively than it impacts people positively,” Tester said. “I think that the rural perspective versus the Detroit perspective are light years apart.”

Tester said he didn’t discuss any specific school choice proposals with DeVos. When asked about a potential federal choice program, Daines reiterated that he opposed federal mandates without specifically addressing charter or voucher programs.

In states that have embraced school choice initiatives, like Arizona, participation in rural areas has been small. Education leaders in North and South Dakota have been skeptical of the feasibility of setting up charter schools in states with a small population spread across a vast area.

“Whether there’s demand for it or not, I think there will be certain people who set it up,” said Tester, who previously taught in Big Sandy and was later a school trustee. “When that happens, that will take (per-student funding) away from these small schools.”

Other issues

Both senators said DeVos indicated that she’d review rules created by the Obama Administration for ESSA implementation; Democrats and Republicans have criticized some rules, and congressional Republicans have targeted certain provisions they can strike during review of the rules.

Tester said he received a “mixed answer” from DeVos about teacher certification, saying she supported both the idea of strong requirements for teachers and options with minimal requirements. Teacher certification reform is often considered as a tool for combating teacher shortages, like the one in rural Montana, though critics say teacher quality can suffer.

Montana, which sets its own teacher standards, recently eased some certification requirements, but other states have made more sweeping changes.

“It is a state-level decision, but if you have an education secretary saying, ‘You know what, teacher accreditation is not that important,’ that goes back to the state,” Tester said. “Their views tend to percolate down to the local level.”

Tester also had concerns about a lack of emphasis on funding for students with disabilities, but said he was encouraged that DeVos voiced support for Pell Grants and that she said she was concerned about the affordability of college.

Daines reiterated his opposition to Common Core standards, framing them as a federal mandate. Montana adopted standards that largely reflect Common Core at a state level in 2011, authorized by the Montana Board of Public Education. Devos has said she wants to end Common Core, but ESSA doesn't allow the federal government to prescribe — or revoke — state-level education standards. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.