Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has had her share of early missteps, but she has also emphasized a message with the potential to win over the nation’s families and teachers — even those skeptical of her enthusiasm for school choice. In June, at the annual gathering of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, DeVos declared, “Many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats — a new education establishment.”
For most of this century, Washington has extended its reach into our nation’s schools. Whatever their merits, efforts such as President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program created intrusive new federal regulations and added new layers to our educational bureaucracy. The results were sadly familiar: over-testing, ineffectual school-improvement schemes, and bungled teacher-evaluation systems.
It’s all too easy for reformers who initially challenge an old order to later lose their commitment to monopoly-busting and opening things up, as they energetically shift to promoting their favorite new orthodoxies. Famously, reformers sought to fix teacher evaluation by requiring schools to evaluate all teachers — from kindergarten special-education teachers to high-school physics teachers — in time-consuming, paperwork-intensive, and identical ways . . . that still resulted in 98 percent of them being rated effective.
It’s time to reboot reform and rediscover the conviction that bureaucracy and paperwork are not tools for fostering terrific schools. We need to recognize that timid teachers and compliance-focused administrators are not going to create the environment in which our students can thrive.
Take a hard look at strings attached to Title I dollars. Title I provides the aid to low-income students that is the federal government’s single largest K–12 budgetary expense. It touches most schools and school systems, hindering decisions about how to spend local dollars and staff schools. Even esoteric-seeming language governing the reporting of such things as “maintenance of effort” and “time and effort” can mean that schools wind up hiring staff they don’t need, assign kids to ineffectual programs just to satisfy their auditors, or spend thousands of hours managing paperwork instead of planning lessons and teaching. The first order of business for DeVos ought to be holding a series of public hearings where teachers and administrators can explain how such requirements play out in practice, documenting the challenges they face and generating recommendations for how to more constructively use Title I funds.
Examine the unwieldy requirements of federal grants. The Department of Education provides grants to colleges and universities, local education agencies, state education agencies, and nonprofit organizations. To describe the bureaucratic red tape that accompanies these grants as Kafkaesque is to insult Kafka. Some of the problem is due to strictures in the statutes authorizing the grant programs, but the secretary has latitude to define what she sees as appropriate evidence that a state is going to live up to its promises. Today, that frequently takes the form of a 50-page narrative that is a salad of buzzwords and big claims. DeVos could convene district leaders, state leaders, nonprofit representatives, and researchers to rethink the federal grant-application process so that successful applications can provide the evidence the department needs without the flowery padding.
Use the bully pulpit to question some of the new reform orthodoxies. Are centralized enrollment systems, in which charter schools are lumped into a common lottery with local district schools, the breakthrough innovation that some reformers have suggested? Or do they merely recreate the same district machinery that frustrated countless parents, while ensuring that many students wind up at schools their families have never visited or actively selected? Does adopting “restorative justice” promote learning for all students, or might it undermine the discipline that has helped make some schools successful? Many such ideas — especially those that claim the mantle of social justice — are being propelled straight from impulse to mandate without scrutiny. DeVos can help call attention to this phenomenon, and urge that all proposed education policies face the proper scrutiny before they’re implemented.
Though it has been a rough few months for DeVos, there’s still plenty of time for her to turn things around. She has distinguished herself as a champion of school choice, and she should continue to beat that drum. But she also has an opportunity to champion the educators and families who aren’t necessarily seeking new choices, but who would dearly love to see their schools set free from the burdens imposed by yesterday’s bureaucrats — and today’s reformocrats.
— Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Michael Q. McShane is the director of education policy at Missouri’s Show-Me Institute.