DeVos vote

Tennessee’s senators aren’t saying how many DeVos calls they got, but it was a lot

PHOTO: twitter@senalexander
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander fielded calls from constituents on Feb. 3, including calls about Betsy Devos's nomination as secretary of education.

After receiving numerous prompts urging Tennesseans to contact their U.S. senators about Betsy DeVos, many constituents want to know just how many got through before Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker voted to confirm the Michigan billionaire as the nation’s new education chief.

But both senators have refused to say.

One day after casting their votes, Tennessee’s Republican senators dodged questions again about the number of calls to their offices and how many were for or against DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

Across the nation, congressional offices were flooded with calls and emails over DeVos, who bungled several questions about public education in her Senate confirmation hearing and became one of President Donald Trump’s most controversial cabinet picks. Alexander and Corker said during the discussion that they welcomed input from their constituents, and numerous groups had rallied stakeholders to provide just that.

But following DeVos’s confirmation in a squeaker vote, only the National Education Association released specifics for members of the country’s largest teachers union who used its online system to voice their opinions. The group, which strongly opposed DeVos’s nomination, reported on Wednesday that 8,500 calls and emails were routed to Alexander and about the same number to Corker.

The NEA count does not include those who called or emailed Tennessee’s senators on their own.

Alexander has been at the forefront of the national debate because he chairs the committee responsible for vetting the president’s nominee for education secretary. Asked Wednesday for a breakdown of the calls, his office released this statement:

“We heard from thousands of people, and I am always glad to hear from people about it. About more than half of the people who called were from outside Tennessee. I took some of the calls myself and talked with teachers and others who called concerned, and I was happy to talk with them,” Alexander said.

A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Education Association said the NEA’s online system first asks participants to enter their zip code to direct them to their senators. Though the association can’t guarantee that all correspondence to Alexander and Corker was from Tennesseans, she said members were urged to reach out to their own senators.

A Corker spokeswoman did not give a reason why the senator won’t disclose tallies about DeVos feedback.

“Our office hears from thousands of Tennesseans each week on a wide range of issues,” said a statement from his office. “Senator Corker is aware of every call, letter and email we receive, and as always, he is grateful for input and appreciates his constituents sharing their thoughts with him.”

Alexander also reaffirmed on Wednesday his support for DeVos, who became the first cabinet nominee to require a vice president’s tie-breaking vote.

“Mrs. DeVos cares about children,” Alexander said. “She spent the last 30 years focused on more effective public schools. She spent a lot of her own money trying to help low-income kids have the choice of better schools that wealthy people have, and she believes in local control of education. Now that sounds like the kind of education secretary that any Republican president would appoint, so no one should be surprised by that.”

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.