Colorado Congressman Jared Polis worries more about Congress creating bad education policy than about U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos enacting it.
But that doesn’t mean the Boulder Democrat isn’t keeping an eye on the controversial new education secretary.
Polis, who was recently named the lead Democrat on the House’s Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee, said he believes the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, limits the authority of the secretary. That should give critics of DeVos comfort.
Still, Polis said he’ll be watching to make sure DeVos’s department adheres to the new law — especially its civil rights components.
Polis spoke with Chalkbeat last week about DeVos, the nation’s new education law that he helped pass, and other education topics.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You didn’t have a chance to weigh in on Betsy DeVos’s confirmation. What do you think of the new secretary?
I haven’t yet met Betsy DeVos. But I talked to her on the phone last week. I’m looking forward to getting together. I’ve invited her to Colorado. She reacted very positively to that. I expect to have her here in the near future. She was particularly interested in seeing some of our coding academies and the other nontraditional higher education options we have.
Both you and DeVos are champions of school choice. But there are differences between the two of you. How would you compare and contrast your philosophies?
I’m supportive of school choice that works. Choice for the sake of choice is not always the answer. What matter is, is there a good school to serve all kids? Schools can be run by a charter management organization, a school district. They can be innovation schools. It really doesn’t matter what type of school. What we care about is that every child has access to a high-quality education.
Historically, Betsy DeVos has been a supporter of choice for the sake of choice without regard to the quality of options. Meaning, let’s have more charters even if they’re bad charters. Let’s allow bad charters to operate. Let’s allow school districts to continue operating failing schools.
I’ve been consistently on the opposite side of that argument. If it’s a school that’s failing to get the job done — whether it’s a district school or a charter school — let’s have a real intervention to improve the quality for the kids in that area.
President Trump called on Congress to pass a bill that would support school choice. What do you hope to see in such a bill? What would you oppose?
I just testified last week in front of the appropriations subcommittee on education for the federal charter school program (a federal grant program that provides financial assistance for the planning and launch of charter schools). It’s $350 million a year. It’s tied to quality indicators states have to have. It ties into strong authorizing practices that districts have to have to ensure accountability and equity at the local level. So I’d love to see full funding of the federal charter school program. Not only does it improve the availability of high quality education options for kids, it also helps address the quality issue.
Vouchers for private schools?
I would not be inclined to support a federal program that forces a local school district to have vouchers. Obviously, we have districts in the country that have chosen to go that route. That’s their prerogative. Fundamentally, education is a locally-driven enterprise. So I’d be against the federal government forcing schools to create voucher programs.
What if the program was voluntary?
The big concern the Democrats would have is that those funds would be taken away from public education. When public schools serve 90 percent of kids and we don’t have enough to fully fund special education from the federal perspective or Title I, the last thing we need to do is take those resources away. I think Democrats would be more open to the discussion if the funds came from somewhere else.
There’s a charter school funding fight happening here at the state level. Any thoughts on that bill?
As a best practice, districts already should and in many cases do share their bonds and mill levies with their charter schools. It’s a best practice from a policy perspective and a political perspective. From a policy perspective, charters are very much a part of the school district and they should share in those tax increases. From a political perspective, it helps these mill levies and bonds pass when the charter school community feels good about them. I think it’s good to highlight the conversation at the state level. It’s appropriate that taxpayers fund all schools in their district.
Let’s talk about the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. How do you see Colorado and other states enacting the law?
We’re waiting to see how the new secretary will interpret ESSA. I would say it’s likely she will allow even greater latitude in the state plans than the previous administration would have. Frankly, I hope they take the civil rights guardrails of ESSA seriously and don’t just put a rubber stamp on state education plans that fail to address equity and discrimination issues.
There’s a tension between flexibility and accountability and civil rights. How do you see those three tensions playing out under ESSA?
The goal of federal education policy — the spirit of ESSA — is to give states the flexibility to address income disparities and racial disparities in achievement. But not the flexibility to do nothing and allow them to persist. The reason why the federal guardrails are important is because we need to look at the state plans and ask, “Are states using their flexibility seriously to address the achievement gap?”
The fear of some is that we have a secretary who is going to be very hands off. What role do you see Congress in playing to hold her and school districts accountable?
Our committee will be the oversight committee in the House. Certainly, I’ll hold her accountable to the language of ESSA, which maintains a civil rights commitment. We want states and districts to have the flexibility to close the achievement gap, but not the flexibility to not act to address inequities in our education system.
What red flags will you be looking for?
Efforts to disguise metrics. Efforts to brush achievement gaps under the rug.
Do you think there is an appetite or need to rethink ESSA under the Trump administration?
I don’t think that’s likely to occur. It took 15 years to replace No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeed Act. It passed overwhelmingly. I’d be open to improvements and fixes if necessary. But I think the body of the law will work.
What do you say to teachers and parents who are very upset by DeVos and the Trump administration?
I was a big part of passing the Every Student Succeeds Act. Frankly, one of the things that did was remove some of the authority of the secretary. People were upset over the way former Secretary Arne Duncan exercised that authority. So this secretary will have less ability than Arne Duncan did through the unrestrained waiver process. (The Obama administration created waivers from No Child Left Behind in 2011 to give states flexibility after congressional efforts to update federal law stalled.)
I think it can be of some assurance to people that the vast powers of the secretary were curtailed. And there are more specific statutory guidelines for the secretary to follow.
There are some real threats out there. And many of them would require legislation — legislation that has passed the House in previous sessions but didn’t become law because of a Democratic president. I’d be very concerned about “Title I portability.”
What that means is siphoning money out of the schools that serve the most at-risk kids into wealthier schools that serve a much smaller percentage of poor kids. On the ground that means some of the schools that serve 70 or 80 percent of kids who receive free lunch might lose a teacher or two. And schools that serve a predominantly upper class population might gain a quarter of a teacher, which doesn’t really help them.
I worry more about Congress passing bad laws than the secretary enacting them.
President Trump recently withdrew federal guidance to schools on transgender students’ rights. What are your thoughts on that move?
I’m very disappointed. And I expressed over the phone to Secretary DeVos my disappointment. School districts need the guidance. School districts have an interest in avoiding costly lawsuits around these efforts. Many school districts want to do what’s right. And without knowing it’s right to provide a different bathroom or this or that, there are going to be parents on all sides of the issues fighting over these things. It was simple guidance that says, “Let students use the gender appropriate bathroom (of their choice).” It provided an additional safe harbor to prevent a costly lawsuit that takes money away from the classroom. So I was very disappointed to see that withdrawn.
What do you say to school communities who say this isn’t an issue for them or that they’re more concerned this will expose non-transgender females to attack?
Simply, the data doesn’t show that. The data shows transgender students themselves are more likely to be the victim of physical abuse and bullying. And allowing transgender students the ability to use the appropriate bathroom is actually reducing their risk of being bullied. It’s hard to imagine sending someone who presents as a young lady into the male restroom. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s a threat to her own safety. There are many kids who have had to drop out of school because of those unsafe situations. We always have to remember that our schools have to be a safe and civil place for every student.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.