Saturday October 31st, 2020 5:41PM

Trump, DeVos raise school choice in appeal to vexed parents

By The Associated Press
Related Articles
  Contact Editor

As millions of American children start the school year online, the Trump administration is hoping to convert their parents’ frustration and anger into newfound support for school choice policies that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has long championed but struggled to advance nationally.

DeVos and President Donald Trump have repeatedly invoked school choice as the solution to parents’ woes. If public schools fail to open, they say, parents should get a cut of the district’s federal funding to send their children to private schools or for home schooling, learning pods or other options that have arisen during the coronavirus pandemic.

For Trump, it’s seen as a potential lifeline to Black and Hispanic voters, who are more likely to support vouchers and other school choice options, polls have found. Speaking at the White House in July, Trump declared that “there is nothing that the African American community wants more than school choice.” He has also used the issue as a political weapon against Democratic opponent Joe Biden, who supports stricter accountability measures for charter schools.

For DeVos, however, the pandemic offers a new chance to win support for policies she has spent her career promoting. Before taking office, she spent decades as an advocate for charter schools and voucher programs in Michigan and elsewhere. As secretary, she has been credited with helping states expand programs but has struggled to make headway on federal legislation.

Since last year, she has been calling for a $5 billion federal tax credit to support scholarships that help students attend private schools or other education alternatives. The idea was included in Senate Republicans' latest relief bill, which was voted down Thursday.

DeVos' critics accuse her of exploiting a public health crisis to pursue her political agenda. But she says she's fighting to give families access to a wider array of options as many districts remain online.

“Parents are increasingly demanding it,” DeVos said in an interview. “It’s becoming ever more evident that parents and students need to have more choices. I would argue that it is the ideal time to be talking about this more widely. And in fact, we are.”

In nearly every public appearance she has made during the pandemic, DeVos has used the spotlight to draw attention to school choice. On Twitter, she has highlighted stories of families calling for options beyond their local public schools. And even as schools of all type suffer financially as a result of the pandemic, DeVos has emphasized the struggles of private, religious schools.

Her focus on school choice has drawn sharp opposition from Democrats and public school leaders. In July, DeVos issued a rule that sought to shift millions of dollars in federal virus relief from public schools to private schools. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress said the rule conflicted with the intent of the funding bill, and several states vowed to ignore it. This month a federal judge appointed by Trump struck down the rule, saying DeVos overstepped her powers.

DeVos also drew criticism for using $180 million in relief aid to create new “microgrants” that families could use to send students to private schools, among other purposes. At the same time, she has publicly assailed some public schools that decided to start the school year primarily or entirely online. In-person instruction should be available to any family that wants it, DeVos has said, and anything short of that fails students and taxpayers.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said DeVos has shown an “overwhelming” preference for private schools amid the pandemic, while doing little to help public schools reopen safely. “She has at every opportunity used all of her discretion to divert money from the public schools, particularly low-income students in public schools, to help fund private schools,” Scott said.

Some public school districts have called on DeVos to provide clearer guidance and to push for more funding. Congress earmarked $13 billion for schools in a March relief package, but many districts say the money barely started to cover the costs of reopening.

“I don’t see anyone advocating for public education, I don’t see anyone providing additional funding, I don’t see reasonable guidance,” said Shari Camhi, superintendent of the Baldwin Union Free School District in New York. “Where is the coordinated effort to get all schools the required PPE? The required technology?”

DeVos, however, said she’s working closely with governors and state education chiefs and has yet to hear a complaint from them. She calls claims that she hasn't done enough “hand wringing” and “excuse making."

“There’s a notion that we had to have some dictate from the federal level about what schools have to do," DeVos said. "It’s just a fallacy. And I’m afraid in many cases, it is an excuse for inaction.”

Her response has frustrated some superintendents who say DeVos told schools to reopen but left them to figure out how. She won praise for granting schools flexibility with federal rules, but many school chiefs take issue with her public admonishments and her renewed calls for school choice.

“Choice is important, but so is safety,” said Kristi Wilson, president of AASA, a national superintendent's association. “We appreciate the flexibility, but what we don’t want is more divisiveness and more rhetoric."

DeVos' allies say she's being unfairly maligned. Florida school chief Richard Corcoran said DeVos has granted every request for flexibility the state has submitted. He said DeVos is “dead right” to criticize schools that kept classes online.

And supporters of school choice say DeVos is right to press for the issue now. Once an abstract debate for many families, choice has suddenly became a personal issue for parents across the country considering options to local schools remaining online, backers say.

Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, said private schools and charter schools have been quicker to adapt to the pandemic and to reopen.

“Education right now is under a microscope like never before, and the problem is that districts don’t work for most people,” Allen said. “Secretary DeVos is really fortunate to be in a position where the most important worldwide concern right now is at her feet to handle as she might see fit.”

Whether the pandemic will boost demand for private or charter schools is still to be seen. Despite families’ frustrations with online schooling, Americans generally support a cautious return to school. In July, nearly half of Americans reported that schools needed to make major adjustments to reopen, and 31% opposed any return to the classroom this fall, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs.

Even some choice supporters are skeptical that this is the moment advocates have dreamed of. Michael Petrilli, head of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, said DeVos and Trump are so unpopular — especially among people of color — that their advocacy could do more harm than good for the movement. He argues that DeVos should have focused on uniting schools of all types to face the challenges of the pandemic.

“Instead she’s just been an armchair quarterback, criticizing schools for what they’re not doing,” he said. “She has been very clear in her messaging and her advocacy that she doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for traditional public schools.”

DeVos denies that she's favoring one type of school over another.

“I’m focused on students, not on school buildings, school systems or any word that comes before school,” DeVos said. “I don’t accept the notion that we’re focused on one type of school versus another. It’s really on students.”

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top General short headlines, AP Online Headlines - Washington, AP Online Congress News
© Copyright 2020 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Trump, DeVos raise school choice in appeal to vexed parents
Millions of American children are starting the school year online because of the pandemic
1:04AM ( 5 minutes ago )
Biden faces worries that Latino support slipping in Florida
Florida is the nation's leading presidential battleground, and there’s mounting anxiety among Democrats that Joe Biden's standing among Latinos in the state is slipping
1:00AM ( 9 minutes ago )
In defiance of Nevada governor, Trump holds indoor rally
President Donald Trump was back in his element this weekend, soaking up the raucous cheers of his crowd
12:47AM ( 22 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
Sally set to become hurricane and threaten U.S. Gulf Coast
Tropical Storm Sally churned northward on Sunday, poised to turn into a hurricane and send life-threatening storm surge along the northern Gulf of Mexico
11:33PM ( 1 hour ago )
Thiem 1st since 1949 to win US Open after ceding 1st 2 sets
Dominic Thiem has become the first man in 71 years to win the U.S. Open after dropping the first two sets of the final
11:07PM ( 2 hours ago )
The Latest: S. Korea eases restrictions as virus cases drop
South Korea has reported its lowest daily virus tally in about a month as it began easing its tough social distancing rules in the greater Seoul area
10:41PM ( 2 hours ago )
AP National News
First US spring flight to Antarctica aims to keep out virus
The first U.S. flight into Antarctica following months of winter darkness has arrived, with crews taking extra precautions to keep out the coronavirus
10:37PM ( 2 hours ago )
Sheriff: Deputy on video punching Black man in Georgia fired
A sheriff’s office in Georgia says it has fired a deputy seen on video repeatedly punching a Black man during a traffic stop
9:36PM ( 3 hours ago )
Winds a worry as death toll reaches 35 from West Coast fires
Warnings of strong winds that could fan the wildfires on the West Coast have added urgency to firefighters' efforts
9:32PM ( 3 hours ago )
AP Online National News
Biden faces worries that Latino support slipping in Florida
Florida is the nation's leading presidential battleground, and there’s mounting anxiety among Democrats that Joe Biden's standing among Latinos in the state is slipping
1:00AM ( 9 minutes ago )
In defiance of Nevada governor, Trump holds indoor rally
President Donald Trump was back in his element this weekend, soaking up the raucous cheers of his crowd
12:47AM ( 22 minutes ago )
Yoshihide Suga poised to win party vote for Japan PM
Yoshihide Suga is poised to win Japan’s ruling party leadership vote on Monday, virtually guaranteeing him parliamentary election as the country’s next prime minister
12:30AM ( 40 minutes ago )
Gulf Coast residents brace for possible new hurricane
Storm-weary Gulf Coast residents are preparing for a new weather onslaught as Tropical Storm Sally churns northward
12:01AM ( 1 hour ago )
Betts homers, Dodgers beat Astros 8-1; LA fans still sore
Mookie Betts’ two-run homer highlighted a four-run fifth inning and the Dodgers defeated Houston 8-1 with angry Los Angeles fans letting the Astros have it again
12:00AM ( 1 hour ago )