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What Trump's Pick For Education Secretary Spells For School Policy


Betsy DeVos is Donald Trump's pick for education secretary. She's an heiress to the Amway fortune and has spent millions of dollars in recent decades to influence education policy. In her home state of Michigan, DeVos helped get a law passed allowing for-profit companies to run charter schools with less oversight than other states. Philissa Cramer is the managing editor for Chalkbeat, a news organization that covers education. I asked her about DeVos' work in Michigan and what she might bring to a Donald Trump administration.

PHILISSA CRAMER: You know, I think no one in this country probably has been a stronger advocate for school vouchers than Besty DeVos. Betsy DeVos and her husband played a pretty key role in getting Michigan's charter school law passed. That was back in 1993. And since then, she has worked to protect charters from additional regulation, including this past year, pouring a lot of money into the campaign coffers of legislators who were considering adding oversight for charter schools in Detroit. And in the end, oversight wasn't included in the final legislation.

So the charter sector in Michigan is one of the least regulated in the country. A huge proportion of schools there are for-profit schools, more than any other state. And across the country, charter advocates and critics alike look at Michigan sector and say the charter sector here is weak, it's not serving students and the lack of regulation is a key reason for that.

SINGH: Donald Trump has said, on the campaign trail, that he would make federal funds available in vouchers for parents to go to private schools. What might that look like, you think?

CRAMER: We don't know what that would look like. One possibility might be redirecting funds from Title I, which is the federal program that gives schools extra funding to serve students who are poor. That would be a really big change. He's also said he wants to convince individual states to put their own funds into the bucket for vouchers. Betsy DeVos has kind of worked in back rooms around the country trying to convince legislators at the state level to create voucher programs. Her efforts have been successful in some places, less successful in others. So it remains to be seen how they could actually make that happen.

SINGH: Based on what we have seen in Michigan then, what's your take on the segment of the student population that has benefited the most from DeVos' influence in Michigan and that segment that seems to have benefited the least?

CRAMER: Yeah, I think what we know about school vouchers is that they benefit families that want to use private schools. And in many cases, the vouchers are not enough to pay for private schools on their own, so families who can put aside a couple thousand dollars a year to pay for private school on top of what a voucher provides, they're able to make use of it.

SINGH: You know, a lot of critics have said that the unintended consequence has been or could be that financially distressed public schools could lose yet more money if they start seeing more students leaving, opting for private schools or charter schools, or they have, you know, vouchers. Can you tell us about what you have seen take place in Michigan?

CRAMER: So that's a real risk. I think Betsy DeVos' position would be that the market is working effectively in that case, that schools that aren't attracting and retaining families shouldn't be funded to continue to exist.

SINGH: I think some people might still be baffled on her position when it comes to Common Core. DeVos sits on the board of an organization that supports Common Core, but she has just come out since her nomination and said that she doesn't support it. What could happen with the Common Core standards if this is in fact the case?

CRAMER: The decision of whether to stick with the Common Core is a state decision. What the U.S. Department of Education can do is incentivize or disincentivize the adoption of those standards. But it's not like Betsy DeVos can come into office and say the Common Core is no more. That's not part of the Department of Education's responsibilities.

SINGH: Philissa Cramer is managing editor of Chalkbeat, an online publication covering education across the U.S. Philissa, thanks so much for joining us.

CRAMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.