DeVos Worries Local LAUSD Officials
Local schools could be hurt in a variety of ways under new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s agenda and President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to education funding, according to Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education member Dr. Ref Rodriguez, who oversees schools in Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Echo Park.
DeVos made a name for herself in Michigan politics, where she campaigned more school choice, including expanding charter schools, implementing voucher programs that enable more students to attend private schools with public money, and allowing corporations to receive tax credits for setting up scholarship programs that send students to private schools.
DeVos has promised to continue campaigning for school choice as President Trump’s Secretary of Education.
“I share [President] Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate,” DeVos said in her January senate confirmation hearing. “Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children?”
Dr. Rodriguez, however, said that school choice is not the main problem facing parents and students in his district.
“We have magnet programs, charter schools, zones of choice and private schools,” said Rodriguez. “What I want to make progress towards is to make sure that all of those choices are of high quality instead of throwing in more choices for the sake of choice.”
According to Rodriguez, while certain parts of Los Angeles could still benefit from more school choice, his district needs more effective oversight of non-traditional public school options, like charter schools.
There are currently 32 charter schools in Dr. Rodriguez’s district. These schools are publicly overseen, but are given more autonomy than traditional public schools. Some are run by the Los Angeles Unified School District while others by independent non-profit organizations.
“I believe in charter schools but I also know that the district currently doesn’t have a great plan for where it approves charters so for some of our communities we have too many schools and not enough students,” said Rodriguez. “We really have to ramp up the quality in all of our schools, but especially in charter schools that are given a lot of autonomy in exchange for accountability.”
Rodriquez also said he is deeply concerned about the president’s recently released “America First” budget which, includes a $9 billion cut to the Education Department and a simultaneous $1 billion increase in programs that support charter schools, school vouchers and other similar policies.
In the president’s budget, released in March, cuts in federal spending are proposed for programs for at-risk student populations, including after-school programs and Medicare services for student counseling and student medical services. The budget also makes cuts to teacher training programs.
“The budget places power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children by investing…in school choice programs,” DeVos said in a March statement supporting President Trump’s budget. “Taxpayers deserve to know their dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively.”
But Rodriguez said the budget cuts will force local schools to provide fewer essential services to students, while DeVos’s hands off approach to civil rights enforcement and special needs programs undermines the protection of his district’s most vulnerable students.
The Department of Education mandates the accommodation of special needs students under a federal law known as IDEA, a law the DeVos was not familiar with in her confirmation hearing.
Shortly after confirmation, DeVos also reversed Obama-era protections of transgender students and Rodriguez worries that, in the current climate, protections for English language learners and other minority groups could be next.
“This sets us back in special education, civil rights, and enforcement for transgender kids. I’m very concerned that this hands-off approach might take states back to a time where equity and access were limited,” Rodriguez said.
But according to Rodriguez, the State of California and the Los Angeles Unified school district have protections of their own in place for minority groups, undocumented students, and transgender students, and both entities will continue working to protect these students.
Concern over the protection of vulnerable student populations hits especially close to home in Los Feliz, where John Marshall High School is 72% socio-economically disadvantaged.
“We have many students on free or reduced lunches. We have many affluent students. We have many ethnically diverse students. We have a special education department that is very effective and serves students with a large range of disabilities from something like ADHD up to autism… It was very dismaying to find out that DeVos didn’t even know the Federal program that mandates the work we do with those students,” said Scott Banks, who teaches English at John Marshall.