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Betsy DeVos May Have Limited Impact on NYC Schools, Experts Say

By Amy Zimmer | February 15, 2017 3:44pm
 Betsy DeVos's role as U.S. Education Secretary might not make a big dent in New York City.
Betsy DeVos's role as U.S. Education Secretary might not make a big dent in New York City.
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BROOKLYN — Teachers unions and parents across the nation are concerned that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — an advocate for vouchers and charters — spells trouble for public schools.

But what DeVos can actually accomplish from her perch in the federal government might be limited in New York City, experts say.

Here's why.

► Most school funding comes from state and local sources.

The federal government contributes roughly 10 percent of the funding to city schools. That means 90 percent comes from state and local resources, explained Michael Rebell, professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College, Columbia University and Columbia Law School.

“There’s obviously going to be a lot more support for the privatization of education — There’s no doubt that there will be more of a push for vouchers and charters," he said. "But to compel virtually anything, they can only do it through funding.”

The largest amount of federal funding comes from two sources: Title 1 funding, which helps schools with economically disadvantaged students, and money for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), to protect students with special needs.

IDEA funding enjoys bipartisan support, Rebell noted, which isn't likely to change.

“It’s theoretically possible they could tie some of that [Title 1] money to states that allow more vouchers or charters, but to do that they have to change the law and that requires Congressional approval,” Rebell said.

The United Federation of Teachers is worried this could happen and estimated it could siphon away $500 million from New York City public schools.

But while DeVos needed 51 votes in the Senate for her confirmation — which only succeeded after Vice President Mike Pence broke the Senate tie in a historic vote — such new funding measures would need 60 votes.

Moreover, the Every Student Succeeds Act — which scaled back the federal government’s role in schools — was signed into law in December 2015 and will be in place through at least 2019. Rebell didn’t think the 46 Senate Democrats (and the two Independent senators who caucus with them) would likely go along with major changes to ESSA.

That means the government might need to find a different source of money to pay for President Donald Trump’s $20 billion voucher plan, which would enable low-income students to attend private or religious schools.

“I doubt that a conservative congress will go for spending $20 billion,” Rebell said.

What’s more plausible is a Race-to-the-Top-like competition where states that adopt certain voucher plans will vie for extra funds, making changes through incentives, he thought.

“Then it would be up to New York State to compete,” Rebell said.

David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, however, remained worried that there could big changes to the Title 1 pot and potentially the reallocation of funding, even for traditional public schools.

He also believes there will be “special new funding considerations — not just vouchers but tuition tax credits and education savings accounts for charter and private, mostly religious, some virtual and for-profit, schools.”

► New Yorkers are putting pressure on the mayor and governor when it comes to education.  

In some ways, the attention around DeVos has inspired people to pay more attention to education in general.

“People are highly motivated and activated. There’s a lot more pressure on the mayor and governor to do more,” said Rebell, who served as executive director of The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), which won a major constitutional ruling on behalf of New York City public schools 10 years ago that requires the state to provide billions in education funding — which it has yet to pay.

Also, New York has more stringent regulation and oversight when it comes to charters than DeVos's home state of Michigan, where for-profit charter schools proliferated.

► Civil rights issues.

One of the main concerns education experts have when it comes to DeVos’s leadership is her impact on the Office of Civil Rights.

“DeVos’s greatest power may be in sidelining Office of Civil Rights enforcement,” Bloomfield said, which she could do in concert with the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

He worries about rollbacks on Title IX guidance on how colleges should handle sexual assault and curtailing Obama-era initiatives like district reporting of disciplinary actions by race.

Rebell noted that the Office of Civil Rights during the Bush administration mainly focused on enforcement of special education laws and not much else, which is what he expects during the current administration.

Bloomfield checks the federal government’s website daily to make sure the transgender guidance access is still posted.

When it comes to such guidance, however, New York City and state issued their own guidance, so students here would likely still have protections.