By Tawnell D. Hobbs, WSJ
If confirmed as education secretary by the U.S. Senate, Betsy DeVos will take over a national education system with an improving graduation rate but stagnant test scores, despite a reform effort under the Obama administration that pumped billions of dollars into the worst-performing schools.
Ms. DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee, passed a key Senate committee vote on Tuesday, but she faces what could be a close vote in the full Senate, likely sometime next week. She would likely maintain her commitment to expand the use of charter schools and vouchers for students to attend private school, a departure for a top administrator of an education system built largely on traditional public schools.
“I’m a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for each of their individual children,” Ms. DeVos said during her confirmation hearing in January.
Ms. DeVos, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has spent decades advocating for the school-choice movement and was an architect of Detroit’s charter system. She hasn’t provided an overarching plan for education, but Mr. Trump has said he would prioritize steering an additional $20 billion of federal funds to school choice.
Under the administration of former President Barack Obama, billions of dollars in grants have targeted struggling schools and charter enrollment has grown. The administration also used competitive grants to nudge states to adopt Common Core, academic standards that outlined what students should know in reading and math.
But reading and math scores were essentially flat on the most recent Nation’s Report Card, a measure of student achievement. The performance could provide validation for Ms. DeVos to push her ideas for education—a key to the economy’s long-term competitiveness.
Adding to concerns about the current state of the nation’s schools was a federal report in January on School Improvement Grants, a signature effort of the Obama administration to help the lowest-performing schools. The report, which looked at schools that received grants between 2010 and 2013, found the program “had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”
The grant program, started in 2001, expanded significantly under Mr. Obama, with $7 billion in awards going to more than 1,800 schools since 2009, according to the Department of Education.
Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy analysis center, said some states and cities with strong plans did well under the grant program, but not as a whole.
“The overall story there is really depressing, it’s frustrating,” Ms. Lake said.
Former Education Secretary John B. King Jr. couldn’t be reached to comment. He has said that patience is needed when improving schools. As a sign of progress, he has pointed to the improved graduation rate, which increased to a record 83% in 2014-15, the most recent year available, from 79% in 2010-11.
But reading and math test scores have been flat or had small increases from 2009 to 2015, following bigger and steadier improvements made under former President George W. Bush, who took office in 2001. Minority students also posted larger advances under Mr. Bush.
“Under the Bush years, the gains were stronger than under the Obama years,” said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the Education Department. “It’s slowed down.”
Urban districts have shown continued improvement in math and reading since 2003, although those scores still remain under the national average.
Some education observers and teachers unions question whether Ms. DeVos, a Michigan billionaire who never attended public schools, is qualified to lead the nation’s education department and help make improvements.
Her answers to some questions during her confirmation hearing, including ones about enforcement of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, increased concerns. But supporters say that her 30-plus years dedicated to bolstering school choice and helping low-income families have better educational options makes her right for the job.
Ms. DeVos would take office as the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is fully implemented in the 2017-18 school year. Educators say the law gives states more control over academic standards and is an improvement over Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which failed to meet academic goals and was blamed for ushering in a climate of overtesting.
Other than academics, the Department of Education’s focus in recent years has been on factors that affect student learning, such as poverty, health challenges and bullying. Mr. King has cited accomplishments that include increased access to quality preschool, improved technology access for students and more focus on students’ civil rights.
It isn’t clear what will happen to initiatives from previous administrations, but Ms. DeVos has signaled that expanding student choices would be a top priority.
“Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the need of every child, and they know other options exist,” she said during her confirmation hearing.