Education Secretary Betsy DeVos bashed state education leaders for doing the “bare minimum” to craft plans for holding K-12 schools accountable under a new federal law.
DeVos’s critique at the Council of Chief State Schools Officers conference comes as the department is in the process of approving state plans on how schools will be held accountable under the Every Student Succeeds Act (Pub. L. No. 114-95). DeVos said the law gave states more leeway to address specific challenges, but state education heads have yet to take advantage of it.
“Even the best plan is short on the meaningful solutions that the law encourages,” she told the school officials. “Even the best plan doesn’t take full advantage of the law’s built-in flexibility.”
DeVos has approved 33 states’ plans, as well as those for D.C. and Puerto Rico, although she said she had hoped to approve more by this point. DeVos told the chiefs her stamp of approval only meant the plan complied with the law, not that it was beneficial for students.
School chiefs said the plans they submitted under the federal law represented only a portion of what they were doing for students.
“That is strictly the skeleton of the work we do,” Mississippi Superintendent of Education Carey Wright told reporters after a meeting with DeVos. “The meat of the work we do you might not see in the plan, but it’s the work we do every day.”
DeVos’s implementation of the law hasn’t been without critics. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has raised concerns during Senate hearings that DeVos has approved plans that don’t follow the law and could lead to minority students being overlooked.
DeVos rejected the criticism, telling reporters she hadn’t signed off on any plan that didn’t meet the requirements of the law.
Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt told reporters the department had been inconsistent in approving plans, requiring his state’s plan to remove a local flexibility measure while similar language was approved in Georgia’s plan.
“Until we have some consistency across the board, I’m not sure you can condemn all the plans,” he said.
DeVos also discussed school safety in a private meeting with state education leaders. DeVos mostly listened to state chiefs and didn’t propose any specific policies, according to those in the room.
The Education Department recently gave a $1 million grant to help bolster school safety and recovery efforts in Parkland, Fla., schools, where a February high school shooting left 17 dead. However, the department’s fiscal 2019 budget request would reduce spending on school safety programs by $24.5 million, a 36 percent cut from current funding levels.
Those proposed cuts, as well as the suggested elimination of a wide-ranging grant known as Title IV, concerned some state education officials, including Illinois Superintendent Tony Smith.
“All of the cuts that are proposed do make it more difficult to do some of the things that people want more of,” he said.
While DeVos didn’t say whether she would amend her department’s budget request, she said she would continue to work with states and help them secure more federal funding if needed.
“Where there is a need for more resources at the federal level, we will be advocating for those in support of states and local communities,” DeVos told reporters.
Increased funding for the Title IV grant program, which could be used to bolster school safety and help students with mental illnesses, has bipartisan support in the House. Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chair and ranking member of the House education committee, asked appropriators to fund the grant program at $1.6 billion in fiscal 2018, four times as much as the program’s current funding level of less than $400 million.
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