What might a U.S. Dept. of Education led by Betsy DeVos mean for Minnesotans? Local leaders share their reactions

REUTERS/Mike Segar
President-elect Donald Trump standing with Betsy DeVos after their meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Nov. 19.

On Nov. 23, President-elect Donald Trump announced his nomination for U.S. Secretary of Education: Betsy DeVos. The billionaire is a longtime critic of the public education system who contends that school choice should be a top priority in any reform efforts.

This aligns with Trump’s main education proposal, which would earmark $20 billion in federal money to promote a market-driven version of school choice that would help families who are dissatisfied with district public schools move to private, religious or charter schools.

Looking at her influence in Detroit — home to one of the most dysfunctional school systems in the nation — skeptics are leery of DeVos’ opposition to policies that would tighten oversight in the for-profit school sector. DeVos’ track record as a reform activist also reveals she’s anti-union and pro-voucher — two hot-button topics that have put teachers unions and public school advocates on edge.

But what does this all mean for Minnesotans? Minnesota has long been at the forefront of school choice efforts like chartering and inter-district open enrollment, but has never supported a voucher system. While DeVos’ nomination has yet to be finalized, MinnPost reached out to a number of leaders in the local education sector for their reactions, lingering questions and predictions.

Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota commissioner of education

Cassellius says she’s hopeful the new secretary of education will uphold the sense of urgency that outgoing Secretary of Education John King and his predecessors have brought to “keeping the focus on equity” to ensure all students have access to a good education.

She is optimistic that, under a Trump administration, states will continue to make gains in two key bipartisan efforts: expanding early childhood education opportunities and moving forward with the new federally mandated, state-crafted accountability law commonly known as ESSA.

“I don’t think it will be this huge upset, so to speak,” she said of DeVos’ nomination. “I think the way the Every Student Succeeds Acct has been crafted, it gives a significant balance to the role of both the federal government and the state.”

Brenda Cassellius

Brenda Cassellius

In terms of expanding early education services — an item that sits at the top of Gov. Mark Dayton’s agenda — Cassellius says she’ll be interested to see whom DeVos appoints to lead the U.S. Education Department’s office that deals with elementary education. “That will give a hint to the policy direction she and the president-elect may want to support,” Cassellius said.

When it comes to the division of duties, Cassellius recalls that federal government’s involvement in education has, historically, focused on matters of civil rights. In the Brown v. Board of Education era, the federal government stepped in to address disparities in access to quality schools that fell along racial lines. Given the persistent achievement gaps in Minnesota, and beyond, Cassellius believes the federal government still has a civil-rights role to play. But she sees a shift taking place that doesn’t place as much onus on the U.S. Department of Education.

“I anticipate what we’ll see is greater expectations and responsibilities placed on states,”she said.

Since she serves on the board of directors for the Council of Chief State School Officers, Cassellius says she looks forward to meeting with DeVos sometime within the next few months.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota

Specht, a staunch supporter of public education, is already in defense mode.

“It’s my understanding that President-elect Trump wants to take $20 billion … from public schools and funnel it to for-profit enterprises. That will hurt a lot of students in the public system,” she said.

specht photo

Denise Specht

Minnesota public schools currently rely on federal funding to help cover special-education costs, to provide Title 1 dollars, and to help pay for school lunches for poor students, Specht explained. “Those are just three examples of pockets of money that, essentially, wouldn’t be coming to Minnesota schools,” she said. “I know that that would hurt a lot of kids here in Minnesota.”

“Lastly, I would say anytime you want to take taxpayer money and give it to for-profit private organizations, I have a problem with that,” she added. “We’re talking about vouchers here. We’re talking about taking money out of the public system and putting it in for-profit corporations. Public education has a purpose in our society. It’s the core function of our democracy.”

Turning to a more immediate task, Specht says she’ll continue to watch the development of Minnesota’s ESSA plan, which is slated to be in draft form come March. No matter what stance DeVos takes on education, Specht recognizes states are currently tasked with defining what makes a good school.

Beyond that, she’s most interested in another pressing education issue that Trump and DeVos have yet to address in any detail: how to address teacher shortages. “I’ll be looking to see what kind of policies — not only in Congress — but what policies we’re going to see here in Minnesota that will help attract teachers to the profession and help keep them there once they’re there,” she said.

Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools

A proponent of charter schools, Piccolo likes that DeVos had indicated that she’s supportive of the charter sector. But his optimism is tempered, at least for now. As he explained, there are two distinct branches of chartering — the corporate model and the ma-and-pa model that’s more representative of the charter sector in Minnesota.

“The vast majority of our [charter] schools are kind of organic charter schools where parents, the teachers, and other community people have formed schools, rather than a corporate management organization coming in and setting up schools, which is the case in a number of states, including Michigan,” he said.

He says any push toward corporate chartering in Minnesota “would be of some concern.” But he thinks Minnesota’s chartering laws are already structured in a way that could deter this from happening, at least on a large scale.

“There are some things in our law that the corporate model doesn’t like. For example, there are teachers on our boards of charter schools. They don’t particularly like that model because that means employees have a say in the school,” he said. “Some don’t like the fact that [Minnesota charter] schools don’t own buildings.”

He also has reservations about the possibility of things like block funding that could lump federal special education and Title 1 dollars together, further obscuring the fact that special-education funding is already vastly underfunded by the federal government.

No matter how much, or how little, the federal government ends up dictating to local educators, Piccolo recognizes that DeVos’ new platform will give her the power of influence.

“The secretary can kind of set the national agenda, in terms of the conversation of the direction of education by their approach to and interpretation of things,” he said. “That’s as important, sometimes, as how they structure things.”

Joe Nathan, founder and senior fellow at the Center for School Change

Nathan, a longtime fixture in local education policy discussions who has also done a lot of work with the U.S. Department of Education over the years, says he has “considerable concerns and some hopes” about DeVos’ nomination.

Starting with an administrative concern, he raised the issue of DeVos’ lack of administrative experience with government at the state or federal level. His other major concern is policy-based: She supports vouchers — publicly funded support for K-12 religious schools — and he does not.

Joe Nathan

“I think, at this moment of enormous divisiveness in the country, it would not be helpful to have public funds going toward religious schools, some of which teach that this religion or that religion is superior to all others,” he said. “I just don’t think that that’s a positive direction for the country.”

If she’s willing to consult a variety of people who have been involved in school choice programs, however, Nathan thinks there’s reason to be hopeful. “I think that school choice is a lot like electricity — it has to be handled carefully. And if it’s handled well, it has many benefits. But if it’s handled poorly, it creates more problems than it solves,” he said.

For instance, he’s against including K-12 schools in a school choice program that are allowed to pick and choose among kids. He worked with the late Paul Wellstone, at the federal level, to ensure that district magnet schools had open admissions. At the state level, he worked to ensure that charters were open to all kids as well.

Research on school choice programs isn’t definitive, he says. But he’d venture to say there are a handful of best practices or lessons that have emerged.

“First, if we’re serious about making choices and options available to all kinds of people, then we need to make sure that there is transportation available,” he said. “Otherwise it can be choice in theory, but not in fact.”

He also says parents need high-quality information about school options that encompasses more than test scores, so they can make informed decisions. This effort needs to include in-person information sessions like school  choice fairs with resources like translators, he says, because families can’t be expected to get all their information online.

“I think that there might be some funding, coming to Minnesota, to help assist and encourage some of our current forms of school choice,” he said, noting he hopes to see this bolster efforts to expand things like PSEO and dual-credit course offerings, which offer secondary students the opportunity to get college credit, as well as new school-choice initiatives like teacher-powered schools.

Henry Jiménez, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs

Representing a nonpartisan state agency, Jiménez isn’t in the business of taking any sides or speculating. He’s focused on finding a way to be of service. “Whoever’s in office is who we work with and are ready to provide our information and insight to make decisions that will benefit our community,” he said.

The Latino community he represents, however, has arguably suffered a social setback given the rhetoric Trump used on the campaign trail that cast immigrants as “the other” and stoked enthusiasm for completing the wall along the Mexican border. Post-election, Jiménez says, people have been contacting his office with concerns.

Henry Jiménez

MinnPost file photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Henry Jiménez

“Post-election what we’ve heard more is from schools — wanting to know how they can provide information to their Latino and other immigrant populations so they can feel supported by the school,” he said. “We’ve also heard from nonprofits who work with us directly, of issues at schools.”

This is an issue DeVos will inherit when she takes office. If, and how, she plans to address it remains to be seen.

For now, Jiménez hopes to counter some of the misconceptions about the Latino community in Minnesota with some simple numbers, starting with the student population: 91 percent of Latino students under the age of 18 are native born. “I think it’s important for folks to know that,” he said. “It’s not a significant number that are foreign born. … We are Minnesotans.”

Many of these students will continue to need federal and state support offered through English Language Learner programs. It’s common for these students to have at least one parent who is an immigrant, Jiménez said, so they likely speak another language at home.

The local Latino population is projected to reach 300,000 by next year. About half of the population are under age 25; and about a third live in greater Minnesota.

“When I think about ‘How is Minnesota going to prepare for the future?’ it needs an educated population,” he said. “And if a significant number of Latino and other people of color are not doing as well, that’s obviously going to affect how well the Minnesota economy can grow.”

Dr. Louis Porter, executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage

When asked, Porter took a more assertive stance on DeVos’ nomination.

“Betsy DeVos does not have a background in public education, does not seem to know the value of public education. That’s troubling to me. We know that voucher programs, and the types of things she appears to support, hurt our community,” he said. “This, to me, is another reminder, that the African-American community has to be ever vigilant and watch this administration and gear up for the types of counters and the type of fight we’re going to have ahead of us.”

Louis Porter

MinnPost photo by Kristoffer Tigue
Louis Porter

If her push for channeling public money into the private education sector materializes, Porter says, he has serious concerns that this would end up benefiting a very small segment of the population — and the beneficiaries probably won’t be black.

“If her appointment does go though, I’m going to be looking at what she does for low-income families and students. I’m going to be looking for what she does to close the achievement gap,” he said. “I have real concerns about her sensitivity to the real problems that face children of color.”

In the face of a new administration that he doesn’t see reflecting many of the concerns of the community he represents, Porter says staying a part of the education conversation — both locally and nationally — will be a top priority.

“For black people, education has always got to be on the forefront,” he said. “It’s essential. It’s been key to our success and freedom in the past and it will continue to be so.”

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 12/01/2016 - 10:21 am.

    Hopefully it means school choice.

    Give the parents the power of the money the school district puts on each student with a voucher. If it helps 20% more kids get an education that is 20% more than the current failed system will produce.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/01/2016 - 10:34 am.

      Actually

      When vouchers are used, educational outcomes are worse.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/01/2016 - 10:36 am.

      A Big Assumption

      You are making the implicit assumption that any change in public education is necessarily going to be a change for the better. What if it isn’t? What if it turns out to make things worse?

      What if the achievement levels drop, and 20% fewer kids are getting an education? Do we just write those kids off, and say “back to the drawing board?”

      • Submitted by B Carlson on 12/04/2016 - 09:56 am.

        Good comment

        But sometimes the only way to find out if something will work is to actually try it.

        Then, after results are in, u can either continue on with it, modify it, or drop it and do a complete change of course.

        I’d say that “flexibility” should probably be the most important word in education today.

        • Submitted by Derek Thompson on 12/13/2016 - 09:31 am.

          Experimenting with kids

          The problem is we are dealing with kids futures. It’s ok to try new things but it’s important not to go overboard and have our future lose a year or two of education.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/01/2016 - 01:25 pm.

      I would not mind vouchers and the silly Republican market driven public education paradigm if those folks getting the money to educate students of parents who use them get assessed for the kids that they cannot or will not teach; require that and the whole silly paradigm collapses.

      Isn’t it easier not to bother with vouchers and actually fund education and the necessary livability programs to support families to provide the necessary foundations for learning?

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/01/2016 - 01:30 pm.

      Well…

      The private and charter and corporate schools have a very significant differentiator from our public schools:

      The ability to tell prospective parents:

      “Little Jonny has needs that we just cannot accommodate at our school and we will not enroll him”

      And

      “Little Mary has shown that she does not fit in our schools make up and she must leave, now”

      If one side of the educational fence has the options above and the other basically:

      “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore”

      We will have a problem. Will a voucher proponent please tell me how this problem get’s solved?

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/01/2016 - 11:48 am.

    De Vos favors for-profit schools

    The nominee for Education has a history of favoring for-profit schools–taking public tax money and funneling it into for-profit enterprises–not just to religious groups–for groups of investors. The corporate model, in other words, that Minnesota has not accepted to date.

    Trump’s appointees, most of them extremely wealthy and Wall Streeters, regard our public enterprises as something they can wring profits from. For-profit prisons. For-profit schools. Vouchers for Social Security. Vouchers for newly-privatized Medicare and Medicaid. No government protection with health plans in Obamacare, but tax credits for expensive private health insurance (tax credits are only good if you owe lots of taxes, which the poor do not).

    These wealthy folks’ mouths water at the prospect of all those trillions of public tax dollars they can use for their own benefit. They really don’t care about what happens to the average person. Watch carefully so we don’t buy pigs in a poke.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/01/2016 - 01:40 pm.

      Imagine a publicly financed education system based on a pyramid scheme with “up-line” and “downline” schools and districts across the country selling a Betsy Devos public education using their newly purchased kits prepared by our Department of Education to make every one of them grovel for enrollment.

      Imagine not public education at all, just religious and private schools with no socialization into the big wide world in which we all must live.

  3. Submitted by Mike Downing on 12/01/2016 - 11:59 am.

    “We know better than you parents…”

    It is truly sad that unelected people in D.C. and St. Paul think they know better and care more for children than their parents. I have more faith in parents than in bureaucrats to choose what’s right for their children. Give parents the freedom to choose!

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 12/01/2016 - 03:36 pm.

      It might be sad

      But it’s true.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/01/2016 - 04:40 pm.

      Freedom to Choose!

      Suppose a local Muslim group opened a madrassa, and Muslim parents were sending their children there. Suppose they used their government-issued school vouchers to pay for their children to be educated in the finer points of sharia law. You would be fine with that? Because who knows what’s best for these particular children?

      The two problems with vouchers are, first, they amount to an expenditure of tax money with no oversight. It’s my money, too, and I object to it being spent on schools that are free to teach whatever they want.

      Second, public education is not an amenity for children and their parents. It is a public good, instituted to make sure that the populace is at least minimally educated. It is not about vocational training, and it is not about teaching children what their parents want them to hear.

      Vouchers are like saying we are free to choose the police and fire departments–give me a voucher to hire my own security guards and firefighters.

      • Submitted by Kris Felbeck on 12/02/2016 - 07:28 am.

        Excellent points, RB Holbrook

        And in addition to your well crafted points, I would agree with other posters that all private schools that accept government support need to be actively open to educating all children, no matter how disabled or academically challenged.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 12/08/2016 - 03:09 pm.

        Please remember that Social Services and the Education System are FAILING the children who need them most…

        “instituted to make sure that the populace is at least minimally educated.”

        These innocent children deserve something better and unfortunately the public education near monopoly is not listening. Would you support a private monopoly that Left Behind as many Unlucky Kids as this one does?

        Hopefully we can break them up like Ma Bell for the benefit of the unlucky kids who they are failing to help.

  4. Submitted by susan lasoff on 12/01/2016 - 01:30 pm.

    Education

    Charter and private non-profit schools should be providing education to children with disabilities.
    This means building or locating in physically accessible facilities, hiring specially trained certified teachers to work with these children, transportation, accommodations, and scholarships (if offered).

    New and separate schools must follow through on these responsibilities, and not defer these children and special programs to the public schools.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/01/2016 - 03:08 pm.

    change is coming!

    Let us invest in kids rather than the “trickle down, establishment, union dominated model” of education that is failing so many children.

    Hopefully more families can escape from the reservation of government schools by investing and empowering all the children and families.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/01/2016 - 05:45 pm.

      Empowering Familes

      Families will not be empowered by giving them vouchers to corporate schools. The value of the voucher will not be sufficient to cover the cost of a decent education. No problem for the well off, they just pay the difference. The rest of us just get a substandard education. Buy your own bootstraps.

      The buzz words that Fran Luntz provides the right, like “empower”, “freedom to ____ “, and “choice” (except for abortion) will change the fact that wealthy right wingers don’t give a rat’s behind about the education of the poor and middle class. They just want lower taxes to keep redistributing society’s wealth upward, and they’re smug enough to tell us this will be good for us.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/01/2016 - 04:28 pm.

    Know-nothings at the top

    Instead of the lengthy screed running through my head, I’ll try to limit myself to a few brief observations:

    Once again, and as usual, decisions about public education are being made by people with no educational training or background, or a demonstrated hostility to one of the few remaining institutions that actually works to democratize and unite the society – that institution being the public school.

    School choice already exists. People Of Money have exercised it from time immemorial, and continue to do so. Those who clamor for its wider practice usually have their own political, cultural and/or racial agenda, and often resent the fact that the wealthy can self-segregate themselves while those of more ordinary means find themselves having to live and work (and go to school) with “the other.” You’ll pardon me if I’m not sympathetic to that concern.

    If we want to return to the educational system of the Antebellum South of 1820, with all the knowledge, and all the people, who’ve been included in education since then once again removed from the picture, we should prioritize school choice. In terms of current educational outcomes, there’s no evidence that school choice works. Only that it makes its proponents feel better.

    “For profit” schools are the educational equivalent of blood-sucking vampires, and deserve all the admiration and affection due to Vlad the Impaler and his disciples.

    Finally, schools, being inanimate, cannot and do not fail. Our recent anxieties over the quite real achievement gap have nothing to do with schools, or even with teachers – to my knowledge, a license is still required to teach in Minnesota schools, and that license implies certain minimum standards in terms of academic preparation and demonstrated knowledge of subject. The gap in achievement is not among or between administrators or teachers, it’s between groups of students. It’s not teachers who are failing to learn, or administrators, or school board members, it’s students. More charter schools, for-profit schools, etc., will not necessarily do anything to address the fact that large numbers of young people are failing to hold up their end of the educational bargain. Why that is demonstrably the case is worth investigating. Most of the rest of it is horsefeathers from people pushing their own, often political, agenda.

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/01/2016 - 05:09 pm.

    The DeVos family, heirs to the Amway multi level marketing fortune, have long worked for the end of public education in the US. They call it “government education” or “government run schools”, because they know people are more opposed to “government employees” than they are to “public employees”. These are the same people who favor the privatization of assets that taxpayers bought and paid for, such a municipal water and power utilities. Remember the fiasco when the corporate Democrat Rham Emmanuel sold Chicago’s parking meters to a private firm?

    The Devos family is the single most important reason that Michigan is a right to work for less state.
    http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/01/devos-michigan-labor-politics-gop

    Slitting the throat of one of the largest remain progressive forces (the teachers unions) is but one important goal for them. This crowd hates and public good that works. Medicare. Social Security. The Postal Service.

    The voucher scam will work the same as their Medicare voucher scam. The value of the vouchers will not be sufficient to cover the cost of decent healthcare or a decent education. If you’re poor, tough luck, your kid gets a lousy education. If you have money, the cost of your kid’s excellent private school is subsidized.

    They also see dollar signs when they see all of that government spending not going to investors, the .1%, and Wall Street.

    Their disingenuous is completely cynical. Within ten years we will hear of main stream politicians calling for the complete dismantling of public education in the US.

  8. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/02/2016 - 07:58 am.

    With all of the moaning about public schools and their performance as compared to the rest of the world, it is interesting to note that the rest of the world with the envious results does not rely upon a hodge-podge of private entities and education-cranks of varying quality and different goals, all running in different directions in search of the flavor-of-the-day.

    But we think that the hodge-podge is the way to build a world-class education system.

    Sad !

  9. Submitted by Mike Downing on 12/04/2016 - 12:21 pm.

    What do we have to loose?

    Inner city schools have failed our inner city families. The racial disparities have been alarming for decades. School choice for inner city youth has worked yet the unions and elites fight school choice all the time.

    What do we have to do to stop the elites from further harming the inner city youth?!

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 12/08/2016 - 10:03 am.

      Agreed

      The Mpls and St Paul school districts are poster children for this.
      – High Administration costs
      – Highest paid Teachers in easiest classrooms
      – Lowest paid Teachers in hardest classrooms
      – Compensation / Job Security not based on results
      – Many Children Left Behind

      I especially like the Ed Mn reps comment. “It’s my understanding that President-elect Trump wants to take $20 billion … from public schools and funnel it to for-profit enterprises. That will hurt a lot of students in the public system,” she said.”

      Hearing this from the same person who supports all the dysfunctions noted above is amazing. The reality is that the Union exists to ensure their employees make more, have more control and don’t get fired. It is exists for the betterment of the adults, not the children.

      By the way, please remember that I think the Public School are 30% of the problem. And irresponsible, incapable and/or neglectful Parents and our societal tolerance / support of them are 70% of the problem. Unfortunately the current systems care for all the adults and sacrifice the unlucky kids.

  10. Submitted by Jon Lord on 12/08/2016 - 11:53 am.

    One can see

    Trump is known for his lack of reading. He will and has bragged about it. He doesn’t see any reason to have public schools.

    I don’t think I could add too much more than what the others have. I do agree with all of them. Many people, besides us, have written in the past about the Dumbing Down of America and we’re about to see it happen in spades going forward.

    Right now, most people my age and younger, and much younger, know little to nothing about our own history let alone the world’s history. It seems like we’ll see more of that illiteracy in our schools. That is simply dangerous. I don’t think we’ll even see ‘bread and circuses’…

    Trump and the wealthy who ‘came up’ just like he did put forth the idea that anyone can do the same…but leave out the part about starting out in the world with a million plus like they did. It’s blind easy to make more as long as the stock market holds…

  11. Submitted by Emma White on 12/13/2016 - 05:57 pm.

    Education

    Doesn’t matter if the school is private or public, the fact remains: everyone understands the importance of education and there’s a big necessity in education itself. So here in the school you can listen to educated people, do assignments that develop your writing, logical or arithmetical skills. Sometimes though students can’t handle them, but they can always turn to MyEssayWritingHelp.com. Education is not only certain volume of knowledge you’re getting in the school/university, but also your personal development as a human. Therefore, the quality of education matters a lot, although most of the times it also depends on your personal attitude.

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