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Betsy DeVos Pushes Schools to Clear COVID Hurdles Without Special Favors
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking during a briefing at Education Department headquarters in Washington. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

As educators prepare for an unprecedented school year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' message to them is clear: You have obligations to fulfill, my expectations are high, and don't assume I'll lift major federal requirements.

DeVos has seized the spotlight with a persistent push for schools to offer full-time, in-person instruction for 2020-21, mirroring President Donald Trump's demands for schools to physically reopen. In the process, she's directly challenged educators to show they're working toward making that happen.

Whether that comes across as tough love or hard-hearted during the pandemic depends on how education leaders, advocates, and the general public view the various challenges local schools face.

But it's far from the only time she's pushed educators in the last few months to put their shoulder to the wheel without expecting new short-cuts or constant pats on the back.

The long-term strategy DeVos and her team take towards the bully pulpit and long-standing federal mandates (many of which have bipartisan support) might be dictated by the pandemic's length and intensity, especially given the shaky relationship between her and many state and local education officials that at times has been publicly hostile.

See Also: How Betsy DeVos Picked a Big Fight Over COVID-19 Relief: An Explainer

While it's premature to make blanket declarations about what federal requirements for accountability, services, and other matters should be lifted from schools, it will be important to avoid hard-line positions yet also focus on vulnerable children's needs, said Laura Jimenez, the director of standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

"We need a little common sense when it comes to this stuff," said Jimenez, who worked at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. "Any one answer for all of the schools in the nation doesn't make a ton of sense."

To Sandy Kress, a former education adviser to President George W. Bush, a certain level of distrust between local education officials and Washington about mandates and flexibility is normal. But he said some of the intransigence on both sides over what must or must not be expected and done during the pandemic is "horribly irresponsible." Instead, Kress argued, they should work together to determine what's needed to address crucial issues like learning loss.

"Show me your plans, and then let's talk about waivers that are necessary to make those plans work," he said, describing his philosophy of how the department and school leaders should work together. "No, I'm not granting waivers like candy. But on the other hand, I'm not telling you to go away and do the best you can and gird up."

'Kids Cannot Continue to Be Held Hostage'

During the spring, as nearly all public schools nixed in-person learning in favor of remote instruction and in some cases focused on reviewing material students had learned before, DeVos urged schools to teach new material to students. "We can do hard things," DeVos exhorted educators in early April on a conference call with reporters.

When given the politically fraught opportunity by Congress to recommend that schools should get significant flexibility from the main federal law for special education, DeVos definitively declined to do so.

In recommending a few narrow waivers from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, DeVos said in late April, "There is no reason for Congress to waive any provision designed to keep students learning. With ingenuity, innovation, and grit, I know this nation's educators and schools can continue to faithfully educate every one of its students."

And then there's federally mandated testing and related matters.

In the first phase of the pandemic in March, DeVos quickly gave states waivers that allowed them to cancel spring exams and let states carry over accountability data from the 2018-19 year for the 2019-20. The unprecedented disruptions to student learning amid mass school closures in the last part of the academic year probably made such decisions from her inevitable.

But recently, her team made it plain to states not to expect to get those waivers again next year. That's despite interest expressed this summer by states like Georgia and South Carolina.

"There are so many benefits to testing, and it allows for some transparency about how schools are performing and the issues we need to address, that our instinct would be to decline those waivers," Jim Blew, assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, told reporters in July.

When asked for notable flexibility the department has provided to schools aside from the March testing waivers, spokeswoman Angela Morabito responded that in April, DeVos made waivers available dealing with career and technical education, how funding could be used for technology training and distance learnings, and donating medical supplies to hospitals and public health agencies.

DeVos is in regular contact with state leaders about pandemic-related relief from federal mandates, Morabito said: "These conversations are ongoing, and any decision on future testing or other waivers will be announced in due course."

She also reiterated DeVos' expectation that action must triumph over alarm in schools. The secretary has seen "pockets" of an "innovative, can-do spirit in many places," Morabito said. But she added, "Kids cannot continue to be held hostage to other people's fears or agendas. The CDC has released guidance on how to reopen safely. This is what the secretary expects of every school," aside from exceptions due to local health circumstances and "individual needs."

Not Easy Territory

Providing schools new flexibility from federal law even during the pandemic doesn't automatically follow neat partisan patterns.

For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a landmark civil rights law. While school districts made the case for some easing of IDEA requirements, allowing schools to opt out of key parts of the law would have triggered a surge of protest from advocates and others who don't necessarily agree with each other, or DeVos, on other big education policy and political issues.

DeVos has power to waive some elements of federal K-12 law beyond testing requirements, although it's limited in several respects, especially when it comes to how schools use federal money.

In June, as the economy worsened, DeVos-a veteran critic of the idea that school spending is the key ingredient to student outcomes-and her team indicated that they might look at least somewhat differently on waiver requests dealing with K-12 funding.

In a document providing information about waivers states could request from the requirement that they maintain their education spending at certain levels in order to tap CARES Act coronavirus aid, the Education Department repeatedly noted what the law does not define, which had the effect of stressing the flexibility states have on this front.

At one point this document states that the department "was providing States with principles that provide flexibility" in demonstrating how they define "support for elementary and secondary education."

In general, DeVos' response to schools' urgent financial needs during the coronavirus comes across as clearly punitive, said Jimenez.

"If you're going to require a public entity to do something, you've kind of got to give them the resources to do it. Every opportunity she's had, she's taken public money away from public schools," Jimenez said. She pointed to DeVos' mandate on equitable services for private school students as a way DeVos had improperly shortchanged public schools

Staying Silent Not an Option?

DeVos also has to keep Congress in mind. Taking a laissez-faire approach and handing out a string of waivers on major issues like testing theoretically might draw criticism from lawmakers of both parties. For example, many Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill typically think testing is an important component of what schools should do, albeit not for identical reasons.

Yet by the same token, there's room for both Congress and the Trump administration "to provide narrow, time-limited relief on a variety of topics," said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

"Just as DeVos has indicated that it is premature to issue such a waiver now, it is also premature to definitively claim there will be no need for any such flexibility within the current school year," she said.

Both Jimenez and Kress suggested ways leaders could meet the pandemic's challenges, without seeking blanket waivers or abandoning the idea of accountability altogether.

Typical, federally mandated accountability systems probably aren't going to be fully possible for 2020-21, Jimenez noted, especially when it comes to things like absenteeism. And the idea of a traditional summative assessment shouldn't be taken for granted next year. Yet she said "scaled-back" tests that "still provide usable information for system-level actors," especially about disadvantaged students, should get strong consideration from states and districts.

"It's hard to say right now which waivers, but there are going to have to be some waivers," Jimenez said.

And even though accountability-driven consequences for schools might not be feasible, schools should be expected to rely on diagnostic tests to help them determine where students are and how much they subsequently improve, Kress said.

"Would we be looking for some growth during the year, especially for growth for disadvantaged kids? Would we be looking for growth for kids who had serious learning loss? ... This is a discussion that has to be held," he said.

Ultimately, these decisions and discussions about federal mandates might hinge on whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, wins the November election, and if DeVos stays on for a second Trump term.

Yet Jimenez suggested that it might not be fair to ask educators to wait for a Biden administration to begin asking for more clarity. If Biden were to win, for example, states might be gearing up for some type of spring testing just as he sends his nominee for education secretary to the Senate in January or February of next year. State and local leaders, she noted, will want some kind of direction from DeVos and the department before then.

"It would be hard for her to stay silent for very long," she said.

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