DeVos's power is limited

Betsy DeVos is our new US Secretary of Education. A few weeks back, I expressed why I thought she was unfit for the job. Now that her nomination has been confirmed, I offer some hope to her opponents and a note of caution to her supporters. Betty DeVos and the Trump Administration will not revolutionize American education. 

The federal government has relatively little direct power over K-12 public education. Federal funding makes up only ~10 percent of total funding to K-12 public education. Legally, for over 40 years, the Supreme Court has maintained that school districts are creations of, and thus subject to the control of, state governments, and that the federal government has no grounds to directly compel states or school districts to follow federal education policy except in extremely limited situations.  

Since 2000, what change the federal government has been able to accomplish has come through conditions on grant money. In order to access Title 1 and other funding streams, the federal government will demand schools and states comply with, for example, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Race to the Top (RttT). Expect the Trump Administration to pursue a similar strategy with regards to things like school choice. I expect a new law or regulation soon that allows students to use Title 1 funding in voucher programs. 

Title 1 funding makes up roughly 5 percent of all government funding for K-12 education. This low percentage means that vouchers based solely on Title 1 funds are unlikely to disrupt public education anywhere but inner cities, where limited funding from other sources means that Title 1 funding makes up a larger share of per-pupil spending. Advocates for inner city districts might look at how Ohio's voucher program has affected education in Cleveland. They should keep in mind that Ohio's voucher program comes from state funding so that individual vouchers are much larger than any voucher constructed strictly with Title 1 money could possibly be.

Also remember that many federal programs like NCLB, RttT, and the Common Core of State Standards were very unpopular. A large part of their unpopularity came from the perception that they represented unwarranted federal intrusion into state and local affairs. People like their local schools and always rally against any federal program that threatens to disrupt them 

I opposed Secretary DeVos's nomination and am not thrilled at her confirmation. However, the limited power of the federal government in public education means that her direct impact on US education has strict limits. The Trump Administration can certainly allow and encourage states and school districts in certain directions, but the ultimate decisions remain at the local and especially state level.

In education, at least, the sky is not falling.

Bryan Shelly