Weekend open thread: Bad signs for education

The next few years won’t be a good time to be a public school student in the U.S. generally or in Iowa specifically. Betsy DeVos is likely to be confirmed as secretary of education, despite bombing in her confirmation hearing, where she dodged some important questions and revealed shocking ignorance about basic education policy matters. Only two GOP senators say they will vote against the billionaire, who has given generously to Republican candidates and causes and worked to undermine public schools for decades.

Iowa’s Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have yet not published statements about DeVos, but I enclose below comments confirming they will support her nomination.

Meanwhile, in a party-line vote on February 2, Iowa Senate Republicans approved a bill to increase state funding for K-12 school districts by just 1.11 percent for the year beginning on July 1. Under state law, the Iowa House and Senate should have set school funding for fiscal year 2018 more than a year ago. However, statehouse Republicans have refused to follow that law for the past several years. Last year was no exception: despite action by Iowa Senate Democrats, House Republicans did not vote on fiscal year 2018 “allowable growth” (now officially known as “supplemental state aid”) during the 2016 legislative session.

If Senate File 166 is approved by the Iowa House and signed into law by Governor Terry Branstad, next year’s 1.11 percent growth in K-12 funding would be the third-smallest increase in more than 40 years. I enclose below a chart showing allowable growth levels approved by the state legislature since 1973. Branstad requested 2 percent more funding for K-12 schools in his draft budget. To my knowledge, the governor has not said whether he would sign Senate File 166 in its current form.

Recruiting and retaining educators to work in Iowa may become a lot more difficult after Republicans destroy collective bargaining rights for public employees, including thousands of teachers. House and Senate leaders have indicated that they will make the first significant changes in Iowa Code Chapter 20 since 1974. Details about the plan have been hidden from public view up to now, but a bill on collective bargaining is expected to appear on the state legislature’s website on February 6.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

From Dar Danielson’s February 2 report for Radio Iowa:

“Betsy DeVos, who is the nominee for the Department of Education, has really worked hard, the way I understand over the last 30 years to support families in their efforts to provide the absolute best education for their families. Which I think many of us would agree with.”

Ernst says she shares a belief with DeVos that those who are closest to the students — such as parents, teachers and local administrators — know what’s best for students. “That’s true of those who are attending public education, private education, and charter schools,” Ernst says. “So I think that that is very important that we take a look at those works and what she has pledged to do. And that is stand up for all students.”

The Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble posted this statement from Ernst on Twitter on February 2:

All children deserve a chance to achieve success regardless of where they were born and the situations their families face. Betsy DeVos has worked hard for over 30 years to support families in their effort to provide the best education possible for their children. She also understands that those closest to our students, parents, teachers, and local administrators, know what is best for our students.

Additionally, Betsy DeVos has pledged to fight for all students–those attending public, private, and charter schools and students who require additional support due to developmental, physical, or other disabilities. With this in mind, I will support her confirmation and will hold her accountable to the standard she placed upon herself.

How are you going to “hold her accountable,” Senator Ernst? Once DeVos is in place, you won’t be able to do a thing, no matter how incompetent or insincere she turns out to be.

A constituent shared on Facebook this e-mail response from Senator Chuck Grassley:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to be U.S. Secretary of Education. I appreciate hearing your views.

Many Iowans have contacted me with concerns about what Betsy DeVos might or might not do as U.S. Secretary of Education. First, I would like to make clear that the U.S. Secretary of Education is not some sort of national superintendent of schools. Mrs. DeVos will not be in charge of the public schools in Iowa or any other state. The role of the U.S. Secretary of Education is to faithfully implement federal education programs, which are largely targeted at providing additional assistance to disadvantaged students and students with disabilities whether they attend public or private schools.

Barring some reason to believe that a cabinet nominee cannot or will not discharge their lawful responsibilities, it is generally appropriate to defer to the President’s choices for his own cabinet. That has been my standard even for nominees with whom I have major policy differences. In this case, I have examined the record and statements of Mrs. DeVos and have found that the arguments presented against her do not justify voting to deny her confirmation.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that Mrs. DeVos is opposed to public schools. I don’t believe that. In fact, she has committed to being a strong advocate for great public schools. This criticism seems to stem from the fact that Mrs. DeVos has made it her life’s work to help low-income families, regardless of their zip code, access the same educational choices that wealthier families routinely exercise. That includes supporting charter schools, which are public schools, and which have been supported by the past several secretaries of education. In her testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, she explained that her motivation came from witnessing the struggles and sacrifices many poor families face when trying to choose the best educational option for their children. There can be good faith disagreements about the benefits of various parental choice programs, but her views are hardly out of the mainstream and her passion for helping disadvantaged children succeed is apparent.

That said, she made it clear in her testimony that, while she will continue to advocate for increased opportunities for disadvantaged students in failing schools, she understands that as U.S. Secretary of Education, she would have no authority to impose her own agenda. In response to a question from Senator Alexander, she said, “Senator, it would be my goal, if confirmed, to implement laws as you intended them. I acknowledge that it is your role to write laws and pass laws, and it would be the department’s role to implement as intended. And that is my commitment.” She has also gone on record that she is “committed to enforcing all federal laws and protecting the hard won rights of students with disabilities.”

I find the commitment by Mrs. DeVos to enforce the law as Congress intended refreshing in light of recent experience. Secretary Duncan, drawing on his experience as CEO of Chicago’s public schools, used his position to improperly coerce states to adopt his preferred policies, including pushing states to expand their charter school laws. As a result, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace the No Child Left Behind Act, additional safeguards were included in the law to limit the secretary’s authority, thus preventing any future secretary from pushing policies not included in federal law. Secretary King then oversaw the drafting of proposed regulations to implement the ESSA that purported to impose new requirements on states and school districts that were not in the law, or even contrary to the law. Those regulations have now been suspended by the Trump administration.

I look forward to having a U.S. Secretary of Education who recognizes that position’s limited role, enforces federal law, and leaves all other educational decisions to the states, local schools, and parents. However, I will continue my longstanding tradition of bipartisan oversight to ensure laws are implemented properly and will oppose any attempt at executive overreach.

Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. Please keep in touch.

Sincerely,
Chuck Grassley

Chart provided by Iowa Senate Democratic staff:

  • DeVos

    The role of the U.S. Secretary of Education is to faithfully implement federal education programs, which are largely targeted at providing additional assistance to disadvantaged students and students with disabilities whether they attend public or private schools. -. I’m quite sure DeVos has no idea What FAPE is, what IDEA is, or how the ADA applies to education. They way Grassley writes off the duties of the Secretary of Education as “just dealing with those with disabilities” reads to me like “and who cares about them?

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