The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Betsy DeVos releases her priorities for U.S. Education Department grants. Guess what’s No. 1.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks before President Trump signed a memorandum “Increasing Access to High-Quality Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Education” in the Oval Office of the White House on Sept. 25. Standing behind her is Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser.  (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

The Education Department released a list of 11 priorities Thursday that Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to set for the agency’s competitive grant program to fulfill her “vision for American education.” Can you guess what her No. 1 priority is?

It’s school choice, of course, given that DeVos has made it crystal clear that her chief priority as education secretary is to promote school choice (unlike every other education secretary before her). DeVos says she just wants to give parents a choice of schools for their children, while her critics say she is determined to push the privatization of public education.

The department released her proposed priorities for competitive grant programs, which annually dole out many hundreds of millions of dollars, starting the clock on a 30-day period in which the public can comment on the list. The Federal Register notice said the list being proposed reflects DeVos’s “vision for American education.”  It says:

Specifically, the priorities are designed to encourage grantees to empower parents and educators; reduce red tape; utilize and build evidence of what works; and, most importantly, take strides toward ensuring equal access to the high-quality, affordable education every American student deserves in an educational environment that is safe and respectful of all viewpoints and backgrounds.

Who would argue that grantees build on evidence of strategies that “work”? Unfortunately, many of the programs that DeVos praises highly — such as those that use public money to pay for private and public school tuition — don’t have any research base of actually helping students succeed in school.

Here are her priorities as proposed in the Federal Register:

*Empowering Families to Choose a High-Quality Education that Meets Their Child’s Unique Needs.
*Promoting Innovation and Efficiency, Streamlining Education with an Increased Focus on Improving Student Outcomes, and   Providing Increased Value to Students and Taxpayers.
*Fostering Flexible and Affordable Paths to Obtaining Knowledge and Skills.
*Fostering Knowledge and Promoting the Development of Skills that Prepare Students to be Informed, Thoughtful, and Productive Individuals and Citizens.
*Meeting the Unique Needs of Students And Children, including those with Disabilities and/or with Unique Gifts and Talents.
*Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Education, With a Particular Focus on Computer Science.
*Promoting Literacy.
*Promoting Effective Instruction in Classrooms and Schools.
*Promoting Economic Opportunity.
*Encouraging Improved School Climate and Safer and More Respectful Interactions in a Positive and Safe Educational Environment.
*Ensuring that Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families Have Access to High-Quality Educational Choices.

The top proposed priority for the Obama administration, according to a 2014 list, was “Improving Early Learning and Development Outcomes.”

The top-ranked Democratic members on the education committees in the House and Senate blasted the list. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said in a statement:

“Since her confirmation hearing, I have voiced concern that Secretary DeVos would abuse her position to prioritize privatization, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing. Instead of listening to the millions of students, parents, and teachers who stood up against her extreme ideological agenda, her proposal will allow her to prioritize applicants that would siphon taxpayer funds away from the public schools that serve the vast majority of students. This is shameful and I urge Secretary DeVos to implement laws and award federal funding as Congress intended — not as she sees fit.”

Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), ranking member of the Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement:

“The US Department of Education’s top priority should be to support state and local education leaders in providing a quality public education, from pre-K through college, for all students — regardless of where they live, how much money their parents make, or how they learn. Despite the lack of evidence proving the effectiveness of vouchers, the Secretary is proposing to divert taxpayer dollars to private schools and for-profit interests through the use of supplemental priorities. This is not aligned with the will of Congress nor taxpayers. I urge the Secretary to heed the advice of the overwhelming majority of Americans and prioritize investment in public schools and the students they serve.”