Trump choice for secretary of education calls for ‘local control’ of schools

December 12, 2016

Using terminology entrenched in California’s school reform vernacular, Betsy DeVos called for “local control” of schools  in her most extensive public comments since President-elect Donald Trump selected her to be his secretary of education three weeks ago.

She also called for “finally ending” what she described as “the federalized Common Core” – the academic standards in math and English language arts adopted by California and 41 other states, along with the District of Columbia.

DeVos, who has spent decades promoting the idea of “school choice,” which includes expanding access to charter schools and taxpayer-supported vouchers for private schools, did not spell out what she meant by local control. It is therefore impossible to know the extent to which the concept is similar to or in conflict with the push to give local school districts more decision-making powers in California.

California voters have rejected the idea of using tax revenues to subsidize private school tuition and any efforts to promote it in the state is likely to encounter stiff political resistance in the state.

DeVos spoke on Friday at a “thank you” rally headlined by Trump in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Friday.  They were her most extensive public comments on education since Trump selected her for the post two weeks ago.

In introducing DeVos, Trump called her “one of the top education reformers in our nation, someone…who has devoted decades to helping disadvantaged students.”

“We’re going to reform our broken education system to put students and families first,” he said.

DeVos, who is married to multi-billionaire Dick DeVos, son of the co-founder of Amway, warned against relying on Washington D.C. to “unlock the full potential” of a child.

“It won’t be a giant bureaucracy or a federal department,” she said. “Nope. The answer isn’t bigger government. The answer is local control. It’s listening to parents and it’s giving more choices. And if I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed as your secretary of education, our kids, your kids will have someone fighting for them every single day.”

California has been at odds with the U.S Department of Education on several fronts in recent years. Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Board of Education, which he appoints, would no doubt welcome a less assertive top down approach from Washington D.C.

A central element of the reforms that Brown has promoted has been “local control” of schools. It evolved out of Brown’s belief in the principle of “subsidiarity,” which has theological roots.

The state’s Local Control Funding Formula has given local school districts unprecedented decision-making powers over how they spend state funds, although districts are expected to focus on several “priority areas” established by the state.

In his 2014 State of the State address, Brown said that subsidiarity is a “rather clunky word that nevertheless points to a profoundly important principle, namely that in our federal system there are separate layers of government, each with its own distinct responsibilities.”

He cited the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines subsidiarity as the idea that a “central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.”

“Instead of prescriptive commands issued from headquarters here in Sacramento, more general goals have been established for each local school to attain, each in its own way,” he said in his State of the State address. “This puts the responsibility where it has to be: In the classroom and at the local district. With 6 million students, there is no way the state can micromanage teaching and learning in all the schools from El Centro to Eureka – and we should not even try.”

DeVos said it was time to put “kids first every single day.”

That, she said, meant “expanding choices and options to give every child the opportunity for a quality education regardless of their zip code or their family circumstances. This means letting states set their own high standards and finally putting an end to the federal Common Core.”

Trump and others in the GOP opposed to the Common Core have insisted that the Common Core is a federal program. It is true that the Obama administration nudged states to adopt the standards by giving them extra points in their applications for his $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund, Obama’s signature education program, if the states adopted comprehensive education standards. But states were not forced to adopt the standards. The standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School officers.

California’s educational leadership has mostly embraced the Common Core, along with most parents. Unlike in many other states, there has been no concerted effort to roll back their implementation in the Golden State.

DeVos had not been an active opponent of Common Core until after Trump selected her to be in his cabinet. As a result, Common Core opponents in her own state are suspicious of her now vocal criticism of the standards, and point to a various organization she supports or is on the board of that back the Common Core, or have not been active in trying to overturn them.

But in an indication of the complexities of Common Core politics, anti-Common Core advocates in DeVos’ own state of Michigan harshly questioned her anti-Common Core credentials, and her use of the word “federalized” in describing the Common Core. They suggested that she still supports the Common Core, as long as it was not imposed on states.

“DeVos’ parsing on Common Core is going to become harder to maintain the more she speaks on education,” said a statement posted on the Stop Common Core in Michigan website. “[Her] use of the qualifier ‘federalized’ is telling. DeVos likely believes Common Core is a high standard and a quality choice for states; otherwise she would be with us at Stop Common Core in Michigan, fighting it to get it out, and replacing it with the pre-Common Core Massachusetts standards. She’s not.”

DeVos has funded and been on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project, which according to anti-Common Core advocates has not supported legislation in the state to end the Common Core standards in Michigan.

There are similarly divisions among “school choice” advocates over DeVos’ position and role, as they and others try to read the policy tea leaves and parse statements made by both DeVos and Trump in the weeks leading up to his inauguration on Jan. 20.

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