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How Betsy DeVos softened her message on school choice

Betsy DeVos became famous — and infamous in some quarters — as the leader of an education movement that pushed for public funding for private schools, including religious education.

But a year into her tenure as President Donald Trump’s Education secretary, DeVos generally steers clear of the words, “school choice,” a phrase she once used often that’s freighted with racial, demographic and religious implications. Instead, she opts for gentler terms such as “innovation” and “blended learning,” and speaks of coming together and “finding solutions.”

DeVos has by no means backed off her push to fulfill Trump’s promise to inject $20 billion into expanded private education options for kids. But one of the most divisive figures in Trump’s Cabinet, hated by teachers’ unions and progressives as Public School Enemy No. 1, has figured out how to market that effort differently.

Behind the scenes, DeVos met with Frank Luntz, one of the top Republican messaging experts, to figure out how to talk about conservative educational policies without sparking protests from teachers and liberals.

“Frank has a 60-slide deck of the words to use, and the words to lose, regarding parental choice, vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay, and all the other issues in education reform,” said a copy of her schedule from last June, published by the liberal nonprofit American Oversight, which sued for her calendar.

“Using innovation lets you bring in school choice through the back door,” said Patrick McGuinn, a professor of politics and education at Drew University, who said it was “politically savvy” of DeVos to reframe the message. “It highlights this claim that the public school system is not innovative and continues that criticism of the traditional school system that has been at the heart of the DeVos term.”

Foes and friends alike expected DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist, GOP megadonor and former education activist, to aggressively push at every turn for school choice. Worries that she would dismantle public schools helped fuel an almost visceral reaction to DeVos after she was tapped by Trump. She was confirmed one year ago Wednesday, when her nomination so divided the Senate that Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote in her favor.

But her early advocacy of school choice produced more headlines than policy change. Congress failed to act on directing federal funds to expand access to private schools, arguably one of her biggest policy priorities, and left her without legislation or concrete action to cite. The private school push is left to the states, at least for now.

In some recent speeches, such as at a department event celebrating Blue Ribbon schools and to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, DeVos didn’t mention school choice at all in her prepared remarks. Instead, she encouraged the crowds to embrace “innovative approaches” and “to come together and find solutions.”

The new message was also on display during a January speech at the American Enterprise Institute, when she said her job is not to be the country’s “choice chief.” Rather, she said it was time to ask questions, such as, “Why do we group students by age?” and “Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?”

“We must answer these questions,” DeVos said. “We must acknowledge what is and what is not working for students.” In September, she embarked on a “Rethink School” tour, and in December organized two “Rethink School Summits.”

Sandy Kress, an adviser to former President George W. Bush who helped craft his signature No Child Left Behind law, said promoting innovation amounts to a way to avoid conflict. “Certainly it’s an easy thing to say,” Kress said. “It doesn’t get you into trouble to say it. On the other hand, it doesn’t have much promise of impact.”

Yet John Schilling, president of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization, pushed back on the notion that DeVos has strategically changed her talking points. DeVos used to work with Schilling at AFC, where she served as board chairwoman before joining the Trump administration.

“These are things that I’ve been hearing her talk about for years,” he said. “She has always been a big believer in innovation. … I don’t think this is a clever strategy to accomplish an agenda that she failed to accomplish in 2017. It’s only year one.”

DeVos herself described her focus on “rethinking school” and innovation as a “broadening of the message.” during a roundtable with reporters Wednesday. And expanding school choice options is one way to shake up education, she said.

“We have to keep changing and getting better at doing school for kids, and helping kids learn in the way they’re wired up to learn,” she said. “We have far too many places and way too many examples of doing things repeatedly and continuing to double down on doing something the same way and expecting different results. And as we all know, that’s the definition of insanity.”

DeVos said she would encourage states and school districts to innovate through implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the K-12 law that replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

“I know it requires change,” she said. “Change is often difficult. … But we have to encourage it for students across this country, because too many of them are left unprepared as they advance through their K-12 years and unprepared as they leave high school and go onto the next thing, whatever that is.”

DeVos had wanted to see Congress pass a federal tax credit scholarship program that could potentially channel billions of dollars to low- and middle-income households to enable their children to attend private schools, including religious schools. But Republicans ultimately weren’t interested in including it in their broader tax overhaul.

GOP appropriators similarly rejected a $250 million private school choice program and a proposal that would have allocated $1 billion to a new program in which federal funds would follow poor students to the public school of their choice — both pitched in the administration’s first budget request in 2017.

School choice supporters did get a small win in the tax bill — the expansion of college savings accounts known as “529s” to cover up to $10,000 a year in K-12 expenses, including costs for private, religious schools, as part of an amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). But DeVos bluntly acknowledged in December that, while it’s a good first step, the vast majority of disadvantaged kids still won’t have access to alternatives to their local public schools. Some conservative critics have noted that the provision largely only helps wealthier families with 529s.

That’s not to say school choice battles are over. The Koch network, a longtime ally of DeVos, for example, is deeply entrenched in fights to expand private school choice opportunities in states such as Colorado, Arizona and Nevada. Similarly, the Florida Legislature is debating a bill that would allow bullied students to move to a private school — using funds voluntarily donated by residents when registering their car.

But in Washington, it’s a different story. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), an ally of DeVos’ who introduced her at her Senate confirmation hearing, said DeVos has shown “dignity and grace under fire” in her first year by taking the time to listen to others, and then coming up with a “positive and constructive approach.” He said he’s not disappointed that there hasn’t been more progress on school choice in Washington because “the goal is not for the federal government to tell people what they have to do.”

“I think she’s doing a pretty good job of examining ways to improve outcomes for kids,” Scott said.

Kress said he would like to see her put some muscle behind her “innovation” message by requiring practices backed up by research as her agency approves state education plans.

“Far more important that innovation is using proven practice,” Kress said. “You can innovate all you want, but if all you’re doing is putting one ineffective practice in after another, what good does that do kids? How does that boost learning or achievement if it’s innovation for the sake of innovation?”

Craig Jerald, an education consultant and former vice president for policy at the College Board, said a lot of what DeVos talks about could be supported by a big block grant created by the 2015 education law. The funds can be used to upgrade school technology or tailor instruction to individual students. The Trump administration last year proposed nixing it completely — although Congress balked at that request.

“It will be interesting to see if the department’s policy proposals match its rhetoric in the coming budget.” Jerald said.

To be sure, both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations pushed innovation in education. For example, Obama’s Education Department proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in 2013 and 2015 to help redesign high schools that incorporate many of the same elements that DeVos is advocating, such as more personalized learning experiences, access to “real-world” learning experiences and a focus on expanding opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math.

Priscilla Wohlstetter, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, said it’s important to remember that at one point Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s signature Race to the Top competitive grant program were considered innovative — and are now unpopular.

“Innovation is one of those words like apple pie. No one is against it,” Wohlstetter said. “It rallies people around you. It doesn’t isolate or alienate anyone.”

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