A Senate confirmation vote is expected imminently for President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. She has been a controversial choice, especially among teachers and public education advocates who have highlighted her lack of experience in public education and protested some of the education ideas she embraces. Although DeVos has received support from several Mississippi leaders, including Gov. Phil Bryant, leaders in other rural states have questioned if her ideas are attainable or relevant considering the unique challenges of rural schools. Here’s a look at how a few of her key ideas correspond with Mississippi’s current education landscape:
DeVos is a staunch supporter of school choice and believes parents should be able to use public funds to choose from a variety of education options for their children, including public schools, virtual schools, charter school and private schools. Expanding school choice has been a long process in Mississippi, however. The state currently has more than 175 private schools but only three charter schools have opened since Gov. Bryant signed the charter school bill into law in 2013. (The state had a previous charter school law but it was so restrictive no charter schools were created.) All three of the state’s current charter schools are located in Jackson. Some lawmakers have pointed out that in rural states, parents may not have many education options, which makes school choice less relevant. That viewpoint has even led two Republican U.S. Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to announce they would vote against DeVos during the full senate confirmation hearing. During a January committee hearing, Murkowski explained to DeVos that in Alaska, the state’s unique geographic features mean it can be hard for students to get to their local public school, let alone another school option. “When there is no way to get to an alternative option for your child, the best parent is left relying on a public school system that they demand to be there for their kids,” Murkowski said.
On her website, DeVos states that she is “not a supporter—period” of the nationwide math and English language arts standards, which Mississippi adopted in 2010. However, in responses to questions from Washington Senator Patty Murray, DeVos said that she would adhere to the Every Student Succeeds Act, which prohibits the Secretary of Education from “interfering with decisions concerning the academic standards states choose to adopt.” That means any push to change the standards would most likely come from state legislators. For the past several years, Republican lawmakers in Mississippi have proposed legislation to repeal or change the standards, but those bills died in committee. One bill, which would have created a commission to propose new academic standards, was vetoed by Gov. Bryant because it did not require the Board of Education to adopt any suggestions by that committee and was therefore unlikely to impact the standards at all. This year, five bills that would have repealed, changed, or allowed parents to opt out of the standards died in committee.
In her January Senate hearing, DeVos said that she would not mandate that states roll out voucher programs, but she “would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation.” Mississippi currently has school voucher programs for students with disabilities to receive funds to supplement their education or attend private schools, but parents have reported that it is difficult to find private schools that have strong special education programs and services in place. In January, state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright told the House Education Committee that about 25 percent of voucher recipients re-enrolled in public schools, according to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.
DeVos is a supporter of virtual schools and said “high quality virtual charter schools provide valuable options to families, particularly those who live in rural areas where brick-and-mortar schools might not have the capacity to provide the range of courses or other educational experiences for students.” Virtual charter schools have been the subject of controversy, however, as a growing body of research has raised questions about the quality of education in these schools. Another possible roadblock: in rural areas, Internet access is often expensive or lacking, so this may not be a viable option for the more than 50 percent of students in Mississippi who attend rural schools. Currently, the state runs a tuition-free virtual school but it is meant to supplement, not replace, public school classes, and students are limited to earning two Carnegie units per school year. The University of Mississippi also runs a virtual high school but charges for each unit course.