The elevation of Michigan charter school advocate Betsy DeVos to U.S. Education secretary leaves a lot of unanswered questions and concerns for the New York teachers, school administrators and education advocates.
While some see a glimmer of hope in DeVos’ comments that controversial issues -- like education standards, assessments and teacher evaluations, expanding charter programs and giving parents vouchers to send kids to private schools -- will be left up to the states, they are still girding for fights.
“That’s the best we can hope for,” said Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, of DeVos’ promises to not “impose” particular policies on states.
But Benaquisto said she and other teachers remain concerned about DeVos’ lack of experience in public education and her decades of support for charter schools and school vouchers. Benaqustio vowed to fight back against any efforts to diminish resources for public schools, especially in high-need Schenectady schools.
Educators in New York are also wary of federal policies that begin to incentivize approaches not favored by state leaders, or that redistribute billions of federal dollars in ways that hurt New York schools. Even changes to the Affordable Care Act or federal tax policy could have downside effects that harm public schools, said Bob Lowry, of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
“It’s hard to know what, specifically, to be concerned about, given Mrs. DeVos’ limited public record on education issues,” Lowry said. “The federal stuff hasn’t crystallized enough yet to have specific concerns, but that may come.”
It took Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote this week to push DeVos into office -- the first time a cabinet secretary has been confirmed by such a slim margin. On Wednesday, in her first address as secretary, DeVos offered vague but conciliatory remarks to a room full of federal Department of Education employees.
She said the weeks of her contentious confirmation fight had “raised more questions and spawned more confusion than they have brought clarity,” and she promised to listen to and work with both her supporters and people who stridently opposed her confirmation -- like national and state teachers unions, countless education groups and others who swamped Senate phone lines in the days leading up to a her confirmation vote.
“I’m the newbie, and I have a lot to learn; I pledge to listen and learn from you and from stakeholders around the country,” she said. “I hope to earn your trust and confidence as we work together.”
DeVos said she respects professional educators and administrators across the country, while also suggesting she wouldn’t be afraid to rethink the status quo, which she and her boss, President Donald Trump, have railed against.
“I will challenge all on how and why we have done things a certain way,” she said. “We will find new ways in which we can positively transform education.”
For New York’s district superintendents, the new federal leadership compounds uncertainty over state funding and the constraints of a tax cap that has consistently come in below its publicized “2 percent” level.
Lowry said his group will carefully watch how implementation of the new federal education law - the Every Student Succeeds Act - progresses. But they will also be tuned in to education funding levels in the president’s first budget proposal and how federal dollars for students with disabilities and low-income districts are distributed.
In the past, some Republican lawmakers have proposed rewriting how federal Title I dollars are spent, including plans that would allow parents to use a Title I allocation to support private or parochial school tuition.
Title I refers to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides funding to schools with high percentages of students from low-income families. At around $15 billion, Title I is the country’s largest public school program; it accounts for about $6 million of Schenectady’s school budget.
At a school board meeting this month, Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring said there was “a fair amount of nervousness” over what might happen to Title I funding.
One of the few education policies Trump proposed during his campaign was a $20 billion voucher program that would give funds to students to attend “the school of their choice,” public or private. Trump promised to make that happen with existing funds, prompting education watchers to express concerns about Title I, the largest pool of federal education dollars.
“We think about (Title I) as a massive federal aid program,” Lowry said. “What Trump was talking about during the campaign for vouchers is bigger than Title I.”
As for whether leaving controversial issues to the states would benefit Schenectady, Spring pointed out that most of the rules that guided and constrained the district’s day-to-day operations were already state, not federally, imposed.
But for some education advocates, DeVos’ remarks so far have done little to nothing to temper fears about the direction she and the president will take public education.
“The irony is inescapable; teachers have to demonstrate they are qualified in order to stand in front of a classroom, and now we have the leader of education in the U.S. with no qualifications,” said Carl Korn, spokesman for the New York State United Teachers, referring to DeVos’ lack of direct experience in public education. “That sends the wrong message.”
Korn said the confirmation fight helped strengthen a coalition of forces opposing the Trump and DeVos agenda -- a coalition he said wasn’t weakening anytime soon, even on issues that New York may be able to sidestep.
“We see this coalition and strong base of support for public education continuing and expanding in New York state,” Korn said.