Betsy DeVos vows to free local educators from paperwork

U.S. education secretary also plans to give them more say over federal school dollars

By DAN BENSON | Oct. 4, 2017

Echoing sentiments expressed by hundreds of Wisconsin school officials, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently told a group of secondary school principals that she wants to give them more discretion over how federal funds are spent at the local level so they can “focus on the people, not on the paperwork.”  A federal pilot program aims to do just that.

“I see you when you’re bearing the brunt of the regulatory burden that local, state and federal governments — including the U.S. Department of Education, though I’m working to change that — put on you,” DeVos said, according to news reports, at the 2017 Principal of the Year Institute held in Washington, D.C., in September by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Being freed from that burden is something Wisconsin educators would welcome, according to a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute survey conducted in July and August. (The survey was sent by email to about 2,600 superintendents, school board members and business managers; 450 responded.)

According to the survey:

• More than 87 percent of superintendents and 81 percent of school board members and business managers said their schools would be more likely to “implement innovations that would improve educational outcomes for students” if they had more discretion over how federal funds are spent.

• And those innovations would likely benefit students and teachers directly, the survey indicates, with 81 percent of superintendents saying they would direct funds to classrooms if they could.

• About 75 percent of school officials thought there were “too many restrictions” on how local districts can spend federal funds.

• Local school officials agreed accountability is important, but more than 75 percent of superintendents said federal regulations “do very little to support the necessary oversight and accountability of public schools.” Only 14 percent of school officials said accountability would suffer if federal oversight were relaxed.

• Two-thirds rated federal reporting requirements imposed on their districts as “extremely” or “very” time-consuming.

• About 60 percent of local school officials agreed with this statement: “Restrictions on how federal funds are spent harmfully distort the decisions that local school officials make on behalf of their students.”

• Almost 60 percent said federal paperwork takes teachers and staff away from students and the classroom.

DeVos told the principals she wants state officials to “give as much flexibility and decision-making power (as possible) to you and your colleagues across the country.”

To that end, one of the future possibilities, DeVos mentioned, is the Weighted Student Funding pilot program, which would allow districts to combine federal, state and local dollars into a single funding stream tied to individual students. English-language learners, kids in poverty, students in special education — all of whom cost more to educate — would carry with them more money than other students. Some districts, including Denver, are already using this type of formula with state and local dollars. Other districts using or exploring some version of weighted funding include Baltimore, Indianapolis and Seattle.

The money could follow individual students to charter or virtual public schools. Under the pilot program — which will involve 50 schools nationwide — the money cannot be used in private schools.

Local districts, including those in Wisconsin, can apply to the program once the initial planning phase ends, a Department of Education spokeswoman said.

“Since the program is still in the planning phase, no school districts are currently participating. When the planning phase is complete, ED will announce the opportunity for districts to apply.  We do not have a timeline for that at this point,” she said in an email.

While the three-year program is not specifically a school choice option, it is supported by choice proponents.

DeVos told the principals her office will “look at each and every federal regulation that affects you and identify every regulation that can be modified, or better yet, done away with to give you more flexibility to meet students' needs.”

Wisconsin educators couldn’t have said it better.

Dan Benson is editor of WPRI’s Project for 21st Century Federalism.