If anything, the global pandemic has deepened U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s commitment to all forms of school choice, top deputy James Blew told reporters in a keynote question-and-answer session at the Education Writers Association’s 73rd National Seminar, held remotely in late July.
Blew defended DeVos’ long-standing push to create a national tax-credit scholarship program, dubbed Education Freedom Scholarships, that could be used by families to pay private school tuition or a variety of other educational expenses. He also promoted supporting parental choice through federal relief funds for schools, by ensuring private schools have access to the aid, too, as well as giving parents leeway to direct a share of those federal dollars elsewhere if their local public school declines to offer in-person instruction this fall.
“So if your traditional district refuses to open when you would like, … we would like to see options provided to parents,” said Blew, the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development. “Our choice would be to send that money to the parents so they could work out a different alternative for their [children].”
“We’re not backing off from the need to empower families and classroom teachers with choices,” he said. “If anything, COVID-19 underscores the importance of having choice.”
The Education Department agrees that there are substantial costs associated with reopening schools and would support a new congressional appropriation, he said, but Blew called on reporters to cover DeVos’s threats to withhold funding from schools that will operate online only with more “balance.”
“We believe that the local authorities, with health authorities, need to make the decisions about what happens in their schools,” Blew said. “We just wanted to even out the debate a little bit to let everyone know children are better off in school. They’re far better off in school, and there won’t be money coming from the federal taxpayer to support it unless they are.”
The EWA session with Jim Blew was followed by a conversation with U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, who was sharply critical of how the Trump administration has handled the issue of reopening schools.
“When you have the president say, ‘Open your schools or I’m going to cut your funding,’ that’s not a plan,” Scott said, “without any regard to the safety, to the local circumstances. To the extent that we can rely on the experts and the science, we’re much better off.”
Cover ‘the Nuances Underneath’
The red-hot national debate about school reopening has become politicized, Blew acknowledged, saying, “There’s not much nuance allowed in presidential rhetoric,” and calling on reporters to provide context.
“There’s two levels of analysis that we have to make here, and one is really about the presidential debate, the campaign rhetoric, the stuff that you all are aware of,” he said. “There’s another set of questions around how it actually gets done. … The president, and I should say Joe Biden, won’t talk about the nuances underneath this larger issue, but as reporters, you should cover it, and those of us who have to implement it really need to understand it.”
As moderator Steve Drummond, the executive producer who oversees NPR’s education coverage, and then EWA members questioned Blew, the Q&A grew tense. After rejecting Drummond’s assertion that charter schools in Detroit, a city where DeVos pushed for unimpeded choice in the two decades before her appointment to the Trump administration, underperformed their district counterparts, Blew chastised reporters.
“I understand there is a lot of underperformance throughout Michigan in their schools, and I’m fascinated that reporters want to lay that at the feet of the secretary of education,” he said. “There is a whole line of governors, there are mayors, there are school boards, there are school districts who’ve had real power over how that education system is managed, and somehow or other, a philanthropist who was encouraging schools to get better gets blamed for what’s happened in that state.”
Blew went on to describe reporters attending the session as “among the elites in our country” who do not understand that parents in low-income communities can’t work when schools don’t provide an in-person option.
Idaho Statesman investigative reporter Nicole Foy was among the attendees who were quick to push back on that characterization: “I’m not sure if the assistant secretary is aware of the average salary of a local reporter, but in no way are we among the elite,” she wrote in a comment shared with Blew.
Blew apologized, but in the next breath suggested that teachers are highly compensated.
“I have lots of friends who are reporters and I understand the salary pressures on all of you right now,” he said. “I would, by the way, contrast that with the average salary of a teacher in this country.”
School Choice vs. the ‘Factory Model System’
Blew opened the session by contrasting his and Secretary Devos’s “education reform vision” with what he called “the dominant vision … embodied by the labor union that represents teachers in collective bargaining.”
“I call it the broken status quo vision,” he said, “the factory model system that has been in place for about a century.”
School choice is the antidote, Blew reiterated throughout his appearance, emphasizing that he and DeVos believe that the public supports their determination to include taxpayer support for private schools and other non-public options.
“We do want them all to reopen, so we have to treat them all evenly,” he said. “We cannot say we’re only going to support the traditional public schools that are unionized.”
In response to questions about school accountability and some states’ desire to suspend annual standardized student assessments for a second year, Blew said that without the new school year underway, it’s premature to decide whether to suspend the Every Student Succeeds Act’s testing mandate.
“Let’s see how things evolve,” he said. “But everyone on this call should understand our instinct would not be to give those waivers.”