A turbulent week on Capitol Hill. Uncertainty in the Statehouse.

For one strange week, Washington, D.C., upstaged the nation’s statehouses on K-12 policy.

  • President Trump’s lightning rod of an education secretary nominee, Betsy DeVos, survived the confirmation process — by the slimmest of margins.
  • A handful of House Republicans took one more run at mothballing the U.S. Department of Education, and Rep. Raul Labrador signed on.
  • The House also rolled back rules unpinning the education law of the land, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

What do these three headlines mean? Let’s recap and look ahead.

The DeVos divide

Betsy DeVos

First, let’s take note of the history. DeVos — a Michigan billionaire and ardent backer of school voucher and charter school initiative — was confirmed after a deadlocked 50-50 Senate vote. For the first time in American history, a vice president was forced to cast the deciding vote on a Cabinet confirmation. Mike Pence broke the tie in DeVos’ favor.

Critics mounted a full-court press against DeVos, hoping to find a third Republican senator to break party ranks and reject her nomination. Staffers for Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch offered no precise tallies on phone calls and emails but they numbered in the thousands, Risch spokeswoman Kaylin Minton said Wednesday.

“A majority of the calls came from out of state and were initiated and scripted by outside organizations,” she said. “Many callers identified as Michigan natives.”

Crapo and Risch voted to confirm DeVos.

So, what happens next?

On Wednesday, DeVos tried to strike a conciliatory tone in her first speech to Education Department employees. She called the bruising confirmation process “a bear,” a joking reference to her much-lampooned suggestion that guns should be in schools to ward off “potential grizzlies.” DeVos also tried to downplay the notion that she would come to the office with a preconceived agenda.

“Let’s make this deal: I will challenge all on how and why we’ve done things a certain way, but I will listen to each of you on your ideas for how we can do better for students,” she said. “You are professionals whom I respect.”

Much of the opposition to DeVos centered on her lack of experience in public education. “I understand the concern that she is not an educator, but I have previously said that if she surrounds herself with experienced educators, we should have nothing to worry about,” state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said Thursday.

Penni Cyr
Penni Cyr, Idaho Education Association

But Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr remains worried about DeVos’ resume, and her motives. “We hope that she has been paying attention to the criticisms surrounding her candidacy, and will move forward with an approach that keeps her in touch with everyday Idahoans looking for access and opportunity, not one that caters to her billionaire social circles and corporate interests.”

The Education Department’s future

While DeVos begins her job, Idaho’s legislative budget-writers are focusing on their collective task. They will write set of 2017-18 budgets for K-12 in the next few weeks, and operate on the assumption that federal education dollars will continue to flow to Idaho, said Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, a key member of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

Raul Labrador
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho

That’s the short term, at least. But if Labrador and his allies have their way, DeVos’ entire agency could go away — opening up new questions about K-12 funding.

Authored by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., and co-sponsored by Labrador and six other House Republicans, the one-sentence H.R. 899 would eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, effective Dec. 31, 2018.

There’s nothing new about this idea. In his first year in office, President Reagan tried to scuttle the Education Department, a holdover from the Carter administration. That happened in 1981, more than 35 years ago. But the idea went nowhere.

There’s also nothing new about the state’s reliance on federal dollars to boost its K-12 budget. Idaho received $264.3 million from Uncle Sam for K-12 in 2016-17. Ybarra and Gov. Butch Otter built their 2017-18 K-12 budget requests around an identical $264.3 million from the federal government.

In a statement Thursday, Ybarra took no stand on H.R. 899. Eliminating the federal Education Department could be a positive, she said, if it eases the regulatory and reporting burden for local school officials. She said it’s premature to speculate about the fate of federal education funding.

Getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education wouldn’t necessarily leave a hole in state education budgets, Labrador spokesman Dan Popkey said Thursday. If Congress abolishes the U.S. Department of Education, (Labrador) would support sending the money directly to the states, without strings attached.”

Wendy Horman school funding committee
Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls

The feds’ funding is vital, Horman said. Much of it goes to help English language learners, students in poverty and special-needs students. Uncle Sam doesn’t cover all the costs incurred at the local level, but the districts need the help.

“(The money) would be extremely difficult to replace, without a tax increase,” Horman said.

And for rural districts, the impact could be devastating, said Boise School District trustee Beth Oppenheimer. Boise has the benefit of a broad economic base — and unique authority to collect local property taxes. Small districts would have a tougher time replacing federal dollars, she said.

Changing the rules on ESSA

Passed in late 2015, ESSA replaced the unpopular No Child Left Behind federal education law — and granted states new decision-making authority.

Earlier this week, the House voted to roll back ESSA rules on school accountability and teacher preparation. (Here’s more about the rules, and their far-reaching implications, from Education Week.)

The House rollback comes after Idaho has spent considerable time and effort creating a new accountability system — one to finally replace a much-maligned five-star rating system last used in 2013.

Under Idaho’s new accountability plan, schools would be measured on a variety of criteria, from graduation rates to standardized test scores to college- and career-readiness. The State Board endorsed the plan in August, and the House Education Committee quietly followed suit last week.

Sherri Ybarra
Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra

The accountability plan is supposed to go online in 2017-18 — and it’s part of a larger ESSA plan the state was expected to send to the feds this spring or summer. The State Board was supposed to review this document next week, but that won’t happen, Ybarra spokesman Jeff Church said Thursday. It’s unclear when Ybarra will take her plan to the State Board.

“(We) will be on hold and waiting for additional guidance from the U.S. Department of Education,” Ybarra said Thursday.

Horman doesn’t want to see the state go without an accountability plan for much longer. A plan points out problems that must be addressed and needs that must be funded.

“True accountability occurs at the local level, but it’s important for the state to identify trends,” she said.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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