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Exclusive: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calls for greater school accountability in helping English learners succeed and commits to ensuring immigrant children’s education

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | June 24, 2019

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Credit: Getty Images)

During a visit to Southern California last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addressed educational needs of the Latino community, calling for more accountability for schools to help English-learning students succeed, guaranteeing immigrant students’ rights and explaining why school officials should embrace and encourage bilingual students.

“A focus around the benefit of having a command of two languages has to be part of that discussion here in California,” DeVos told LA School Report last month in her first interview with California media. She shared that after meeting with English learners in other parts of the country, she heard “they were talking much more about bilingualism and the benefit that holds for young people in their future careers.”

In California, nearly 20 percent of all public school students are classified as English learners. Over the last three years, English learners have shown almost no growth on state test scores, even though the state has funneled more funds to school districts with high numbers of English learners and other disadvantaged students. English learners’ performance remains at the bottom of all subgroups of students, lower than for all ethnic groups and for all students receiving special education and those in poverty.

Last year statewide, they gained less than 1 percentage point from the previous year’s test scores. Less than 13 percent of English learners were proficient in reading and math. In each of the last three years, less than 4 percent of Los Angeles Unified’s English learners were proficient in reading and less than 6 percent in math.

• Read more: English learners in California remain at the bottom of state test scores with only a hint of progress — and it’s even worse in Los Angeles

“It’s clearly a very significant issue for California, Texas and a lot of states that have a lot of English language learners. We are very committed to supporting educators and having high expectations for all students,” DeVos said. “I feel like in a lot of places there’s been a lot of obfuscation around progress in that area. Parents need transparency to know how their kids are doing.”

She said that “something drastically different” has to be done to help the most vulnerable students in the education system, including English learners and low-income and minority students.

“We’ve done the same thing for well over a century, and in the last 50 years have spent over a trillion dollars at the federal level to try to change things for those at the bottom rung. Those outcomes and those results haven’t changed. Those gaps have not narrowed at all,” she said.

“We’ve got to have everybody pulling in the same direction at their fullest potential in the long term. When we’re 24th, 25th and 40th in the world compared with other countries in certain academic areas, it’s not acceptable. America’s got to continue to lead the world, and we can only do that when everybody has the chance to contribute in a meaningful way.”

DeVos also talked about undocumented students and “Dreamers,” those who came to this country as youth and have been protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA was established by an executive order from former President Barack Obama to protect nearly 1 million undocumented youth from deportation but was rescinded in 2017 by President Donald Trump. DACA was omitted from Trump’s new immigration policy, which was announced last month.

Esmeralda Fabián Romero interviews U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Credit: Laura Greanias)

A federal appeals court ruled last month that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security violated the law by ending DACA. The following week, on June 4, the House passed the American Dream and Promise Act, which would give DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship, although it faces an uphill battle in the Senate and a veto threat from Trump.

A new report on “Immigrants and Education in California” released by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that three-quarters of Californians are concerned about the impact that immigration enforcement can have on students.

DeVos said her role is making sure “that the law is followed and ensure that all students do have that opportunity” in K-12 education.

“I think with regard to the discussion around immigration policy, it’s the beginning of a discussion. I think it’s a proposal that’s being discussed, and of course it will have lots of debate — and hopefully will have lots of debate in Congress,” she said.

DeVos also spoke about parents’ rights to choose the best school for their children, particularly in the current educational climate in California where the state legislature is debating major restrictions on charter schools.

What started as a package of four bills on charter schools in California has been cut in half, as legislation in the Assembly and the Senate were withdrawn that sought to cap charters and place a moratorium on their future growth.

One of the existing bills already passed by the Assembly would require all charter schools approved by a district to be located within district boundaries. The second bill, also passed by the Assembly, gives local school districts sole authority to approve new charter schools and to consider how new schools would impact the district’s budget in the approval process.

The bills, both awaiting action in the Senate, have been aggressively pushed by teachers unions that have openly blamed charters for public school underfunding.

• Read more: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talks about why parents deserve more school options, why she supports ‘Freedom Scholarships’ and what it’s like working with a new Congress

DeVos said she believes “there should be more charter schools, not fewer.”

Charters are public schools that operate with more flexibility and autonomy than district-operated schools, and most of their teachers are not in unions. About 1 in 10 students enrolled in the state’s public schools attends a charter school. According to the California Charter Schools Association, in the fall of 2016, California’s 1,254 charter schools enrolled 602,837 students. Currently, there are 73,000 children who are on a waiting list for independent charter schools in the state, CCSA data show.

DeVos said her message for parents of students in California charter schools is, “I’d encourage them to speak out and contact their legislators. Make their voices heard.”

DeVos has set her education agenda around the expansion of school choice, including school vouchers and other alternatives to traditional schools, and most recently her $5 billion tax credit scholarship proposal, Education Freedom Scholarships.

When asked to explain that policy to parents, DeVos said, “The proposal will help more kids get a much better education. That’s the bottom line. The vehicle to do that is a federal tax credit that individuals and companies could contribute to voluntarily, so before their tax dollars become federal tax dollars, they contribute to scholarship granting organizations as defined by states that decide to participate. No state is forced to participate, but if they do, they define one or more 501(c)(3) organizations that individuals can contribute to.

“The states then formulate a program or programs to empower parents and students to make a choice in their K-12 education. Now, we have encouraged people to think very broadly about what that can look like. California, for example, might decide that enhancing career or technical education opportunities and apprenticeship opportunities is a good direction. Or perhaps providing more preschool options.”

She added, “The opportunities for different kinds of learning and different kinds of environments have to be more plentiful for students in California and students across the nation,” DeVos said.

She defended her “freedom of education” policies from those who oppose school choice and refer to them as a way to “privatize” public education.

“I don’t even know what that means,” DeVos said about privatization. Those who oppose school choice “don’t even really understand what is education choice, what school choice education freedom is.”

DeVos believes there is broader support for school choice than most people think, but the opposition is “yelling louder than they have for a long time,” she said. “I believe that education freedom is inevitable at some point.”

She said she wants California parents to know that her focus is on individual students, not schools, and also on empowering parents to decide what’s the best option for their children’s education.

“Right now, too many parents don’t even have that opportunity to decide that. And if you decide that your assigned school is the right fit, nobody’s suggesting that you do anything different. But you ought to have the freedom to make that decision and make another choice if that’s the right thing for your child,” DeVos said.

“I’m for your child. I’m for your children. And I want the best education opportunities for them as defined by you, the parent. I want you as a parent to be able to make a variety of choices. If your son learns best with lots of activity and time to run around, if your son learns differently than your daughter, or one son learns differently than another son, why should they all be in the same place, learning the same way, and be forced to conform to what the system dictates?”

She concluded, “I acknowledge that schools have to change. Education needs to change.”

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