A play-by-play on Betsy DeVos’ remarkable, combative confirmation as education secretary

President-elect Trump and his nominee for U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos

The Senate confirmation hearings for President-elect Trump’s cabinet nominees have been, for lack of a better word, wild. No doubt the same applies to Trump’s nominee to lead the nation’s public schools—controversial Michigan school choice champion Betsy DeVos.

Those listening in on this week’s often combative back-and-forth between Democrats and DeVos heard more than a few bizarre moments, including one in which DeVos spoke of the grizzly bear threat to schools and seemed to indicate she did not understand the details of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Public education advocates have been quick to denounce DeVos as unfit for the position.

If you’re keeping score, The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss has offered a first-rate “blow-by-blow” of the proceedings today, including an explanation of some of the strangest moments.

From the Post:

While many confirmation hearings have moments when somebody says or does something that raises eyebrows, the DeVos hearing on Tuesday was something of a spectacle throughout. (It’s no wonder stories about the hearing went viral on social media, something that doesn’t usually happen with education confirmation hearings.)

 It wasn’t just that DeVos — who critics say supports policies that would privatize public education — seemed unable to answer basic questions and made some rather startling statements. Among them:

She responded to a question about guns from a senator representing Connecticut, the site of the 2012 Newtown school shootings, by saying that schools in Wyoming might want to have a gun to protect against “potential grizzlies.” (The school she referred to as probably having a gun actually doesn’t have one.)

Kaine: “If confirmed will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter or private?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Equal accountability?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Is that a yes or a no?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”
Kaine: “Do you not want to answer my question?”
DeVos: “I support accountability.”

Devos — as has been noted, for example, here, here, and here — could or would not answer basic questions about education policy, such as whether states and localities had to comply with a federal law protecting students with disabilities. This revealed either a stunning lack of background in key issues, lousy hearing preparation, an ability to handle the pressure — or all three.

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News & Observer column: No need for cops in schools

School busesIn case you missed it this weekend, The News & Observer’s Barry Saunders has offered up his characteristically spirited take on the stewing debate over police officers in schools following the disturbing Jan. 3 altercation captured on tape at Rolesville High.

It’s a fascinating read, and it comes, as Policy Watch reported last week, with protesters planing to call for the removal of all school resource officers (SROs) from Wake County schools.

From the N&O:

Former Wake County Schools Superintendent Bill McNeal talked to me about back in his day recently, but it was not with any rose-colored nostalgia in which all kids were Wally and the Beav or those mischievous little tykes from a “Family Circus” comic strip.

McNeal, an educator since the 1970s who served six years as Wake superintendent, acknowledged when we spoke last week that “there were disruptive students when I started, but the world was a little different, not everyone was carrying a gun and there was greater support for schools among parents. That meant that students knew what was expected of them.”

Today? Not so much, he said. That’s why, he said, he has no problem with School Resource Officers being in schools “if they are well-trained and integrated into the fabric of the school.”

Ah, but there, as the noble bard wrote, is the rub.

Not all SROs are well-trained or integrated into the school’s fabric. Some apparently approach their assignment as being on the front lines of an undeclared war.

After watching Rolesville police officer Ruben De Los Santos make like he was Superfly Jimmy Snuka – R.I.P., Superfly – and try to suplex that little 16-year-old girl to the floor, many people are questioning whether we need SROs in schools. Others of us know the answer: NO!

McNeal feels differently, though.

“I’m not going to throw all SROs under the bus” because of the actions of a few, he said.

Neither, fortunately, do all SROs throw little girls around as brutally as De Los Santos and others have done in recorded encounters.

It’s important, McNeal said, “that there are clearly defined roles, and that administrators are handling certain things and are not putting SROs in difficult situations. At the end of the day, you have to remember that they are, in fact, law enforcement, and their responsibility is different from administrators.”

Right on. When teachers call a cop – and regardless of how one puts it, SROs are cops – on a kid for not putting away a cellphone or for back-talking, they are possibly endangering that child’s health and future. You mean to tell me teachers couldn’t have broken up that Rolesville High School fight – one in which witneses say the cop-assaulted girl wasn’t even a participant – without concussing a young girl and, in the bargain, possibly giving her a criminal record? You mean educators couldn’t have found a way to turn that into a “teachable” moment in which discipline was administered by the school and parents, not the law?

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One week before Trump’s inauguration, national education leaders weigh how to store immigration data

Donald Trump speakingWe’re one week away from President-elect Trump’s inauguration, and many questions remain about how the firebrand new president will lead, particularly when it comes to the immigrant community.

Fittingly, Education Week offers up a fascinating report today on how national education leaders are weighing changes in how they handle immigration data, given concerns that the new president would use the information to speed deportations.

From Education Week:

In recent weeks, the boards of California’s Los Angeles Unified and Santa Cruz city schools passed resolutions vowing to resist any requests for student information from federal immigration officials. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson supported their stance, calling on districts throughout the state to become “safe havens” for immigrant students. The Denver, Minneapolis, and District of Columbia school systems also affirmed their commitments to not share student data that might imperil undocumented students and families, unless compelled by law.

“There are certainly records that could be part of our files that could be of potential interest in [deportation] proceedings,” said Los Angeles school board chair Steven Zimmer in an interview. “We are going to protect that information.”

Schools generally do not track whether students or their families are in the country illegally. They do, however, typically collect and store a wide range of related data, including students’ country of origin, home language, and date of entry into U.S. schools. Schools also typically maintain “directory information” that includes students’ home addresses and phone numbers. In some states, they may also collect and store some students’ Social Security numbers, although schools are by law not allowed to deny enrollment to a student without such information.

In addition, dozens of state education departments maintain databases containing information used to determine if children qualify as immigrants under federal guidelines. The U.S. Department of Education operates the Migrant Student Information Exchange, which allows states to share educational and health information on migrant children—many of whom are immigrants, and some of whom may be undocumented—who travel across state lines.

In the era of “big data,” such information could easily be combined with other data sets and used to make inferences about students’ immigration status, said Bill Fitzgerald, the director of the Education Privacy Initiative at Common Sense Media. The information held by schools and states could also be used to help locate or investigate individuals who may be subject to deportation, or to provide tips to immigration enforcement authorities.

However, none of those potential uses aligns with the original reasons for the collecting the data. And the information is legally protected by federal and state privacy laws, as well as a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that enshrines the right of undocumented children to a free public education.

But since his November election victory, Trump has nominated immigration hardliners to key Cabinet and advisory positions. And though elected officials in many liberal cities have vowed not to cooperate with federal immigration-enforcement authorities, millions of Trump supporters embraced his call for a crackdown on illegal immigration, according to pre-election surveys by the Pew Research Center.

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Following violent altercation at Rolesville High, advocates call for Wake County to remove police from schools

YouTube Preview ImageWhen Letha Muhammad first saw the video of a Rolesville police officer slamming a Wake County teen to the ground, she—like many who have spoken up since the violent encounter last week in a North Carolina high school—says she was “appalled.”

“I felt sad for this young lady and her family,” said Muhammad, of the Education Justice Alliance, a grassroots group that advocates for equity in Wake County Public School System’s discipline practices.

“To see that in black and white and color, this man pick up this small young person and slam her to the ground, I would like to say I was shocked,” she adds. “But I’ve traveled across the country for social justice campaigns and, unfortunately, I’ve heard of this happening, just not in Wake County. My heart goes out to the family.”

Now, Muhammad and other local protesters say they plan to call on leaders in the Wake County school system to end an ongoing agreement that allows armed police to provide security in local schools.

The video, which was posted to Twitter on Jan. 3, shows a police officer lifting a female student at Rolesville High in the air and slamming her to the ground. Media reports said the girl was attempting to break up a fight when the officer, Ruben De Los Santos of the Rolesville Police Department, dragged her away.

The video prompted strong reactions online, including a condemnation from the ACLU of N.C.

School officials have already said they plan to review their agreement with police in the wake of last week’s controversial altercation. Meanwhile, De Los Santos has been placed on administrative leave with an investigation ongoing.

But protesters say they want to see major changes in how the school system operates. Muhammad will join advocates with the Youth Organizing Institute and other community members in holding a press conference at the district’s headquarters in Cary Tuesday.

She said Thursday that the group’s top goal will be removing police officers from local schools. “But we recognize that process won’t happen overnight,” she says. “So along with that, we’re also looking for greater training of school resource officers (SROs) as well as community input” in the district’s agreement with local police.

As an eventual replacement to SROs, the groups plan to ask district officials to shore up school support staff with more social workers, counselors and what she calls “peace counselors,” parents and teachers trained to head off violence in schools.

“We recognize with young people that things will happen,” Muhammad adds.

Policy Watch will continue to follow this as it develops.


Media report: New DPI superintendent hires former McCrory staffers

New DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

New DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

We’ve talked at Policy Watch about how reluctant new Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Mark Johnson has been to reveal the particulars of his plans for reforming a public school system he slammed as “outdated” last week. 

But now, those looking for specifics may have a few tea leaves to read this week. According to a report from The News & Observer, Johnson has tapped some familiar faces to staff his office.

From the N&O:

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson has hired Lindsey Wakely to the job of senior policy adviser and chief legal counsel. Wakely was McCrory’s deputy general counsel and was former legal counsel for Variety Wholesalers, a company run by conservative businessman, political contributor, and former McCrory budget director Art Pope.

Kevin Wilkinson is Johnson’s special assistant. Wilkinson worked at the legislature for former Rep. Rob Bryan of Charlotte. Bryan was key to establishing the state’s Achievement School District, which the legislature created to have charter-school organizations take over up to five low-performing schools from school districts.

A law the legislature passed last month that the state Board of Education is suing over would have Johnson appoint the Achievement School District superintendent rather than the board. The law is now on hold.

Meredith Steadman, Johnson’s scheduler and special assistant, is a former McCrory scheduler.

The appointments come with Johnson in the midst of a pending court battle to determine exactly what powers he will have in his new office.

State legislation approved in late 2016 granted Johnson greater control over the state’s education budget, senior staffing, the controversial achievement school district and the state’s charter school office, although members of the State Board of Education are challenging that order in the courts.

In the meantime, Johnson has told school leaders he plans to hold a listening tour for the remainder of the year before returning with “action items.”