Today's news -- January 18, 2017



DeVos’ education hearing erupts into partisan debate

At her confirmation hearing on Tuesday to be education secretary, Betsy DeVos vigorously defended her work steering taxpayer dollars from traditional public schools, arguing that it was time to move away from a “one size fits all” system and toward newer models for students from preschool to college. The hearing quickly became a heated and partisan debate that reflected the nation’s political divide on how best to spend public money in education. Republicans applauded DeVos’ work to expand charter schools and school vouchers, which give families public funds to help pay tuition at private schools. Democrats criticized her for wanting to “privatize” public education and pushed her, unsuccessfully, to support making public colleges and universities tuition-free. DeVos, a billionaire with a complex web of investments, including in companies that stand to win or lose from federal education policy, was the first nominee of President-elect Donald Trump to have a Senate hearing without completing an ethics review on how she planned to avoid conflicts of interest. Democrats pointed out that in the past, Republicans had insisted that no hearings be conducted before those reviews were complete. Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, limited the questioning to one round of five minutes for each senator, prompting howls from Democrats, who noted that previous hearings had included two rounds of questions. “It suggests that this committee is trying to protect this nominee from scrutiny,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. With time limited, Democrats confronted DeVos with rapid-fire questions, demanding that she explain her family’s contributions to groups that support so-called conversion therapy for gay people; her donations to Republicans and their causes, which she agreed totaled about $200 million over the years; her past statements that government “sucks” and that public schools are a “dead end”; and the poor performance of charter schools in Detroit, where she resisted legislation that would have blocked chronically failing charter schools from expanding. Under questioning, DeVos said it would be “premature” to say whether she would continue the Obama administration’s policy requiring uniform reporting standards for sexual assaults on college campuses. She told Murphy, whose constituents include families whose children were killed in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, that it should be “left to locales” to decide whether guns are allowed in schools, and that she supported Trump’s call to ban gun-free zones around schools. She also denied that she had personally supported conversion therapy. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts pressed DeVos on how she could oversee the Education Department, the largest provider of student loans, given that she had no experience running a large bureaucracy and that neither she nor her children had ever taken out a student loan. “So you have no personal experience with college financial aid?” Warren asked. DeVos, who did not attend public schools or send her children to public schools, argued that vouchers and charter schools were simply a way of offering poor parents the kind of school choice that wealthy parents have long been able to afford. But Democrats said research showed that voucher programs had done little to raise achievement among poor students. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked DeVos, “Can you commit to us that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?” DeVos began to demur, saying that “not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them” and that she would work to find “common ground” to give parents “options.” “I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public education,” Murray said.

DeVos’ inexperience in the realm of public education appeared at times to be a liability. During rapid-fire questioning by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), she seemed to demonstrate a lack of understanding of one of education’s major federal civil rights laws, which requires states that take federal funding to provide children with disabilities the services they need to benefit from a public education. DeVos said states should decide whether schools should be required to meet those special-education requirements.  “So some states might be good to kids with disabilities, and other states might not be so good, and then what, people can just move around the country if they don’t like how their kids are being treated?” Kaine said. DeVos also declined to say whether she believes that all schools receiving taxpayer funding — public, public charter, or private — should be held accountable to the same performance standards. Teachers unions and civil rights groups have argued that DeVos’ support for a free-market approach to education has undermined public schools, which they see as a critical civic institution. DeVos’ opponents also point to the fact that she has no record on higher education or protecting children’s civil rights, two areas critical to the work of the department she aims to lead.

In an interview last week with, Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, blasted DeVos. Weingarten compared DeVos’ zeal for school-choice vouchers on par with what former Gov. Jeb Bush was all about during his reign in Florida. Debbie Wasserman Schultz agrees lashing out at DeVos, saying that “based on her long record of activism, she will take our nation’s schools back down a path of proven failure that Florida knows all too well.” Critics like Weingarten have accused Trump of effectively campaigning on a pledge to dismantle public education as we know it, referencing his (little known) campaign vow to spend $20 million on school choice, which would come from “reprioritizing federal dollars.” “President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Education Secretary has displayed one consistent value: an open hostility toward public schools and teachers,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Betsy DeVos champions ‘reforms’ that basically defund, undercut and privatize public education, with a goal of turning it over to loosely-regulated, for-profit charter schools. She’s spent millions of dollars and decades pushing this cause, the same one that’s failed in Florida. Former Gov. Jeb Bush touted the same voucher-happy, test-crazed ‘reforms,’ and they have largely been abandoned,” the past DNC chair added. “The billionaire Republican fundraiser that Trump wants to lead our nation’s education system has been one of the biggest proponents of these ‘accountability’ reforms in her home state of Michigan, saddling public schools with burdensome mandates that private schools are mostly free to ignore.”,-pushes-choice


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State education leaders target out-of-school suspensions

Florida education officials hope to tackle out-of-school suspensions, working with local leaders to limit the use of the discipline strategy in districts around the state. State education commissioner Pam Stewart has begun talking with superintendents about cutting down on out-of-school suspensions and also addressing their inequitable distribution, she said at a Board of Education meeting in Stuart on Tuesday. Nearly 165,000 students were given out-of-school suspensions in 2014-15, the most recent year for which data is available from the Department of Education. About 43 percent of those students were black, although black students make up about 23 percent of the student population statewide. Thirty percent of students who received the punishment were white; white students account for 40 percent of enrollment. “That’s one of the areas that I think will make a huge impact and make a difference and actually improve education in Florida,” Stewart said, adding that she’s working with certain superintendents who have been focused on reforming school discipline. Board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey said curbing the suspensions is one of her chief priorities for 2017. “We want to help our schools reduce the use of out-of-school suspension, where schools are sending students home when they misbehave,” Fishman Lipsey said during the meeting. “There are times, of course, where it is appropriate. But research is showing that out-of-school suspension is really bad for kids for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t address the underlying issue that often has led to the specific misbehavior. It leads to lower graduation rates, a higher likelihood of involvement with the juvenile justice system, it often leads to those students being unsupervised, and when they return to school, they’re farther behind.”


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Higher education plans fall short

Florida's political leaders are looking to make state colleges and universities more affordable - as long as students don't overstay their welcome. Gov. Rick Scott and Republican leaders in the state Senate recently released separate plans aimed at keeping costs low for students. They seek to ensure most students graduate in four years, through financial incentives benefiting students and schools achieving that goal and penalizing those that don't. Block tuition would be a good way of getting students to graduate in a timely manner and open up spots for other students at selective schools such as the University of Florida. But it would also hurt lower-income students who take fewer hours so they can also work to help pay for school. The Senate plan would double state funding for a matching grant program for first-generation college and university students. Making it a 2-1 match is a welcome change, but an increase in program funding to around $15 million is small compared to Bright Futures changes estimated to cost $151 million. Those changes would increase the top-level Bright Futures award to cover the full cost of tuition and fees and include a book stipend. These changes benefit the highest-performing students in the state, but not the students who have lost their scholarships due to rising academic requirements. Helping those students should be a bigger priority than extending a scholarship for National Merit Scholars to out-of-state students, another part of the Senate plan. A proposal to link college and university funding to graduation rates must ensure less selective schools get the funding needed to help struggling students graduate. At a time when rising student debt is a major concern, Florida's political leaders get credit for tackling the issue. But lawmakers should be wary of proposals that might be politically popular but do little to help the neediest students.


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