DeVos’s U-turn on local control of schools

If there’s one thing her most fervent admirers and legion of detractors could probably agree on it is that Betsy DeVos is the picture of a doctrinaire conservative. The polarizing US education secretary has rarely seen a small-government, private sector approach to a problem that she didn’t like.

The wealthy Michigander is a fan of giving families vouchers to use at private schools if they choose. She has pulled back on efforts to exert more federal control over private lenders who critics say take advantage of unsuspecting higher education student borrowers. And she has always stood firm on one of the most sacred conservative principles in education — that schools should be controlled at the local level and not by distant Washington bureaucrats.

Suddenly, however, the education secretary has caught a case of Great Society fever to rival any symptoms ever exhibited by Hubert Humphrey. Blame it on the mid-July fumes wafting off the swampy Potomac, but DeVos has come down with a bad case of big-government chutzpah.

The champion of local control is suddenly on an all-out campaign insisting that schools across the country must reopen to in-person learning this fall.

“I think the go-to needs to be kids in school, in person, in the classroom,” she said over the weekend on CNN as she took to the Sunday media circuit to press the case that President Trump started making days earlier.

DeVos has echoed Trump’s threats to withhold federal funding from districts or states that don’t comply, though the administration’s ability to actually follow through on that is limited.  (So far, the threats don’t seem to be working, as school officials in San Diego and Los Angeles, the country’s second biggest district, announced yesterday that they will begin the fall with all-remote learning.)

There is wide agreement that in-person learning would be far better for students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But that has to be weighed against all the issues at play with a pandemic that has claimed more than 130,000 lives across the country and is now surging in a number of states, including California.

DeVos’s sudden embrace of a heavy-handed federal reach on schooling has conservative scratching their heads.

“Betsy DeVos six months ago would have thought this was ludicrous,” Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education research organization, told the New York Times.

DeVos’s sudden demand that schools follow her DC dictate may be wholly inconsistent with her lifetime of conservative thought, but it is very much in line with what looks like a no-holds-barred effort by Trump to get the economy restarted in advance of the November election no matter what.

“We have so politicized the situation we don’t know who we can trust, and it’s become very clear that we can’t trust her,” Keri Rodrigues, the founder of Massachusetts Parents United and president of the National Parents Union, a coalition of advocacy groups across the country made up of parents from communities of color, told the Times. “It’s as if the Trump administration gave her one sentence that she was supposed to stick to: Open the economy by any means necessary. Our lives are not valuable to them at all. We are a means to an end.”

Another local figure jumping into the national fray is Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who ripped DeVos for her insistence that schools reopen. “You point to a private sector that has put profits over people and claimed the lives of thousands of essential workers. I wouldn’t trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child,” Pressley tweeted at the education secretary.

Boston Herald columnist Jaclyn Cashman said Pressley “should be ashamed of herself for politicizing the issue of whether children should go back to school in the fall.”

Of course that’s exactly what critics of DeVos and Trump say they are doing.

In the end, all Beltway bluster from the Trump administration is not likely to have much impact on local decision-making. Districts will weigh all the factors at play, including the state of the pandemic in their region, and make a decision locally about how best to handle schooling in the fall. In other words, they’ll follow what used to be the Betsy DeVos playbook.

MICHAEL JONAS


FROM COMMONWEALTH

Attorney General Maura Healey and a group of fellow AGs are suing the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency over its ban on foreign students being in the US if their schools are only offering online courses this fall.

The state reimposed local plastic bag bans, but did it so quietly that many merchants weren’t even aware of the shift away from the pandemic-based suspension of the rules.

Voting rights groups are suing Secretary of State Bill Galvin who has balked at sending out applications for mail-in balloting until he gets added funding to cover the cost of the mass mailing.

MassINC Polling Group president Steve Koczela says a statewide survey of K-12 parents shows very mixed results from the sudden lurch to remote learning this spring.

Opinion: Jim Alosi says we must not let the pandemic stifle efforts to craft the kind of bold transportation policy Greater Boston desperately needs.


FROM AROUND THE WEB

BEACON HILL

The Massachusetts Senate passes a sweeping police reform bill on a 30-7 vote after 4 a.m. on Tuesday, after an all-day and all-night session. The bill would ban chokeholds, ban the use of tear gas, license all police officers, and, most controversially, put new limits on “qualified immunity” from civil lawsuits. (State House News Service) Herald columnist thinks Senate Democrats are overreaching by pushing the change on office immunity.

Joan Vennochi wonders whether Gov. Charlie Baker is afraid of the State Police. (Boston Globe)

The Legislature is facing an end-of-session crush of bills like no other. (Boston Globe)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell plans to file a proposal to create a police civilian review board. (Boston Herald)

Boston isn’t Minneapolis when it comes to its policing practices, say Rev. Eugene Rivers and Harvard professor Christopher Winship, who praise the BPD while saying more can always be done to root out racist practices. (Boston Globe)

Americans for Tax Reform, a national group, says hundreds of regulations suspended during the coronavirus pandemic — including 21 in Massachusetts — should be permanently eliminated. (Wicked Local)

A food distribution program established by nonprofit Brockton Workers Alliance helps undocumented immigrants. (The Enterprise)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

There are long lines at Marlborough Hospital, which is one of the few sites across the state offering a saliva test for COVID-19. (Metrowest Daily News)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Coronavirus cases are overwhelming three of the largest states in the country, as officials in California, Texas, and Florida weigh reimposing lockdowns to get the virus under control. (New York Times)

A Washington Post investigation of injuries to protesters during recent demonstrations for racial justice casts doubt on official accounts of the events in three instances.

ELECTIONS

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Republican Helen Brady can appear on the ballot in her campaign against US Rep. Bill Keating. (Boston Herald)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Less than two percent of more than $12 million in emergency coronavirus-related city contract dollars went to a Boston-based minority business. (WGBH)

Gov. Charlie Baker creates a new website for residents to report businesses that are not complying with COVID-19 guidelines. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

More than 200 universities signed onto a lawsuit filed by Harvard and MIT challenging the Trump administration’s rule denying visas to international students whose programs are operating remotely. (Associated Press)

Some Boston public schools are denying students with disabilities slots in dual-language programs. (Boston Globe)

Dozens of “Black at” Instagram pages have become a platform to anonymously share stories of racist or discriminatory incidents students have experienced in South Shore schools. (Patriot Ledger)

Schools look to adopt policies to combat racism. (Telegram & Gazette)

Residential special education schools will get $16.1 million from the state to cover coronavirus-related costs. (MassLive) WBUR has more on the funding, which will go to 32 schools.

The Amherst town manager is worried about the impact that reopening UMass Amherst will have on the community. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

ARTS/CULTURE

The owner of the Art House and the brewery 1620 Brewhouse in Provincetown says plans to expand the enterprises and develop a performing arts center are on hold because of the pandemic. (Cape Cod Times)

TRANSPORTATION

About 350 drivers for the MBTA’s Ride service are on strike. (Boston Globe)

MEDIA

In Media Nation, Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy claims his hometown of Medford is close to becoming a news desert, and gives recommendations about what can be done.