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Education Nominee Generates Concerns And Hopes for Future

Puts Spotlight on Role of Federal Policy, School Funding

As someone who taught for 25 years, is the daughter of teachers and married one, Mary Bouwense’s life has been steeped in public schooling. So she was appalled when President Donald Trump, in his inaugural address, included public schools in his litany of “American carnage”: “an education system flush with cash, but whichleaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

“That is so out of touch, and so wrong,” Bouwense said. “He has not talked to a public school teacher, for sure. It’s stunning, it’s just stunning.”

Federal Funding of Local Districts

Federal dollars provide only a minor portion of revenues to the 20 public school districts of the Kent ISD. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Local sources: 23.24%
  • State sources: 70.76%
  • Federal sources: 5.96%

Federal revenue includes $24.1 million to Title I for disadvantaged students and Title II for teacher training, $21.4 million to special education, and $9.6 million to Title III programs for immigrant students and English-language learners.

Source: Mike Hagerty, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of administrative services

That disconnect between rhetoric and reality does not bode well for the Trump administration’s implications for public schools, said Bouwense, president of the 1,300-member Grand Rapids Education Association, the union representing teachers and ancillary staff of Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Nor is she encouraged by this week’s Senate committee narrow endorsement of West Michigan’s Betsy DeVos as education secretary, given DeVos’ inexperience in public schools and strong support of charters and vouchers. “I think she’s been insulated from the realities of what a public school actually does,” Bouwense said.

Many Kent ISD educators share her concerns about what impact a Trump/DeVos administration could have on the funding and policies of public schools. But others have a more hopeful view of what DeVos could accomplish should she be confirmed.

They include Bouwense’s superintendent, Teresa Weatherall Neal. She has supported DeVos as someone who has supported her and the district’s Transformation Plan, as well as the DeVos family’s support of GRPS programs.

“It is my hope that (with) her knowledge of the Transformation Plan, and what we’ve done in an urban district for the past five years under my leadership, that we can be a beacon of hope for other districts across the nation,” Neal said after DeVos’ nomination. “She knows it can be done.”

How Much Actual Impact?

DeVos’ confirmation appears more precarious, however, with two Republican senators withdrawing their support this week. But as her nomination heads to the full Senate, following a controversial Senate hearing and opposition from some Michigan school boards, a quieter question persists about her and the president: How much impact can they actually have on local school districts? Not that much, says a school finance scholar.

“The federal role in funding of schools is quite modest,” said David Arsen, a Michigan State University professor of education policy and K-12 educational administration. “These are still decisions that would be made primarily at the state level.”

Indeed, of total revenue for all 20 school districts in the Kent ISD, just under 6 percent comes from federal sources, said Mike Hagerty, assistant superintendent.

Arsen, co-author of a critical study on Michigan’s school funding system, points outmost federal funding is for special education and Title I services for at-risk students. Further, he added, “States have the constitutional responsibility for providing education. The federal government does not.”

That said, Arsen sees two areas where the Trump administration possibly could have an impact on local schools.

The first is in the allocation of Title I funds earmarked to help low-income and disadvantaged students. In renewing the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, legislation was proposed that such funds be “portable” – that is, not go to school districts, but follow individual students to the public or private school of their choice.

Arsen said it’s a “possibility” federal rules could be changed to allow such a reallocation. And while Trump campaigned on a proposal to provide $20 billion in block grants to states for school choice and voucher programs — with states expected to kick in $110 billion — enacting such a program would require congressional action, Arsen noted.

‘Children are not blueberries, and they can’t be shuffled around.’ — Mary Bouwense, president, Grand Rapids Education Association

Further, Michigan’s Constitution prohibits public dollars from funding non-public schooling, a voucher system that DeVos pushed in a year 2000 ballot initiative to amend the Constitution that was soundly defeated. For the 37 states that have such clauses, they “effectively outlaw private school choice” although programs such as tax-credit scholarships for private-school tuition may get around them, according to Education Week. However, it’s unlikely they could do so in Michigan because of its restrictive constitutional language, school choice advocates say.

Another area where Trump and DeVos potentially could affect local schools would be a major revamping of federal policy, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which increased the federal role by imposing penalties or providing incentives for states to make improvements, Arsen said. The Every Student Succeeds Act, due to take full effect next fall, gives more flexibility to states in testing and accountability.

“The federal government is getting more involved,” Arsen said. “It’s conceivable going forward it could get more involved … But it would have to come up with new ways in which the federal government becomes active in schools.”

Rockford Superintendent Mike Shibler warns that vouchers for private schooling could “literally bankrupt” Michigan public schools
Rockford Superintendent Mike Shibler warns that vouchers for private schooling could “literally bankrupt” Michigan public schools

Michigan Schools Already Strapped

Just how the federal government may become more active in public schools – or withdraw support for them – concerns local educators going forward.

As superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, Kent County’s poorest school district, Dave Britten said he doubts a Trump-DeVos administration would cause more federal interference in education than there already has been. In fact, their pro-charter and voucher stances may work against them, he said.

“One of the things that could backfire is it could put a spotlight on this whole movement that helps the general public understand what’s really going on,” said Britten, adding despite DeVos’ championing of charters, Michigan’s academic rankings have fallen as charters have proliferated.

But Britten worries a strong national push for charters and vouchers could sap financial resources from already strapped public schools, and create “choice for some but not choice for all.” Steering $20 billion to Title I vouchers would take $1,800 per student from public schools “constantly battling the State of Michigan for adequate and equitable funding,” he said.

“There aren’t enough charter operators and never will be enough charter operators or even private schools under a voucher system that would operate and take the place of public schools,” he added. “So what’s left for those public schools?”

Drawing the Line at Vouchers

In Rockford Public Schools, Superintendent Mike Shibler also is concerned about draining public money for private schools. He said he would expect DeVos, if approved, to be “balanced in her approach to (improving) traditional public schools and charter schools.”

“What I expect from our U.S. secretary of education is that she will focus on what’s in the best interest of all children in the United States, and that she will give equal priority to public school education,” Shibler said. However, he added, “If she begins to talk about using federal dollars to support private schools, then that’s a problem for me.”

Had Michigan voters approved the 2000 constitutional amendment requiring voucher stipends of $3,300 per private-school student, over time it “would have literally bankrupted public-school education,” Shibler said. While insisting he supports faith-based schools, Shibler said there simply aren’t enough taxpayer dollars to pay for public, charter and private schools – especially since state-aid funding has also been funneled to higher education in recent years.

‘The federal role in funding of schools is quite modest.’ — David Arsen, Michigan State University professor of education policy

Noting Rockford receives $2 million a year in federal Title I dollars for disadvantaged students, to reallocate those dollars to vouchers would hurt the district, he said. “That’s not appropriate and it’s not fair.”

Further, he added, “If you start funding faith-based schools with public tax dollars, there’s going to be requirements that follow that money. Do they really want that?”

Looking ahead, should DeVos be confirmed, Shibler said he hopes she will push for policies and resources to support local schools, rather than “punish” them for falling short on test scores.

“They need to help school districts that are struggling with specific strategies and programs to help them improve, rather than an ‘I told you so, I got you’ kind of philosophy.”

GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal hopes the Trump administration and public-school officials can “learn and come together”
GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal hopes the Trump administration and public-school officials can “learn and come together”

DeVos Family has Supported GRPS

Although she has taken some heat for her support of DeVos, GRPS Superintendent Neal has maintained that support despite widespread criticism of DeVos’ performance at her Senate confirmation hearing. Following the hearing she issued a statement praising DeVos and her husband, Dick, for their support of her and GRPS despite “points of difference on education policy.”

She noted they had provided a leadership coach after she became superintendent, helped expand the mentoring program Kids Hope USA in the district, and supported the schools’ piece of the Downtown Master Plan. The Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation also aids GRPS through its initiatives such as Parent University and Believe 2 Become, she said.

“The entire DeVos family has been supportive of me and supportive of my kids in the district,” Neal said in an interview.

Going forward, she expressed hope DeVos could foster cooperation between public schools and the Trump administration for the good of all children. Although she said she opposes spending public money for private schooling — as well as further cuts to school district budgets – she said all schools have a role to play in educating children.

“I would hope they would keep in mind there are approximately 55 million children in the United States of America that are depending on us to educate them,” Neal said. “There is no one size fits all.” She hopes educators “have a voice, and that we look to all of these educational entities that have been serving children. Let’s see how we can learn and come together.”

GRPS has many at-risk students served by federally funded programs such as Title I, she said, adding, “None of those children can afford to take a cut” — nor can students in any other local district.

But whatever federal policy is going to be, she stressed superintendents need to know it and fast. Districts are already hammering out budgets for next year and must by law give layoff notices by month’s end, she pointed out.

“It could put many of us in extreme harm’s way” if federal funding decisions aren’t made clear soon, she said. “If most dollars are tied up in staff, and if parents are making choices, they need to know what programs we’ll have available.

“No one wants to be caught in that, and I don’t believe for half a second that that would be Betsy’s intent, either,” she added.

She expressed optimism DeVos’ knowledge of the district would be a plus for public schools: “I think her experience with Grand Rapids can only benefit other children across the nation.”

Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Dave Britten worries a strong federal push for charters and vouches could create “choice for some but not choice for all”
Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Dave Britten worries a strong federal push for charters and vouches could create “choice for some but not choice for all”

‘Schools are Not a Business’

Bouwense, the teachers’ union president, feels quite the opposite. She says DeVos is unqualified, has negatively impacted Michigan public schools, and in her hearing showed little understanding of specifics such as special-education law.

“The secretary of education should be a champion for all students and public education,” said Bouwense, a former special-education teacher. “When someone comes in who doesn’t have that, the concern is immediate that they’re not going to be looking out for all children – children with disabilities, public school children, children in poverty — all of the things that affect public education.”

DeVos rejects such criticism, telling the Senate panel she is “a strong advocate for great public schools,” but that if a public school is unsafe or not a good fit, parents should have the right to a “high-quality alternative.” DeVos family spokesman Greg McNeilly has called her “a passionate advocate of high-quality public schools, good teachers and providing options to every family,” while accusing “teacher union bosses” of engaging in “bigoted partisan opposition” to Trump’s education agenda.

But Bouwense is skeptical of Trump’s business-oriented mindset and cabinet. “Schools are not a business,” she said. “Children are not blueberries, and they can’t be shuffled around.”

She hopes his administration will “prioritize the importance of public education” — and vows she and other teachers will keep pushing them to do so.

“We understand the development, the pedagogy, all the things that need to be done for children to grow and learn,” she said. “We’re the experts. So we will continue to fight for that.”

Erin Albanese contributed to this story


Why Michigan Doesn’t Have School Vouchers and Probably Never Will

What Are School Vouchers and How do They Work?

What Could Betsy DeVos Really Get Done as Education Secretary?

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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