BY LAINA STEBBINS
Capital News Service
LANSING — With Betsy DeVos now at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, Michigan educators are considering the benefits of handing more decision-making power to the states – a priority DeVos has repeatedly expressed.
Superintendent Rick Seebeck of Gladwin Community Schools would welcome such a shift. He attributes Michigan’s education troubles to a needless “level of federal intrusion into the local education process” over the years, which he said has hindered the ability of educators to serve their students as they see fit.
“I think you can have accountability without mandating so much of what has to be done,” Seebeck said. “We have to keep the accountability, but we have to get rid of all the red tape that’s keeping us from actually meeting those accountability standards.”
The federal government has long held power over schools, Seebeck said, by providing them with the funds they need so long as they follow federal rules that not every educator has found productive.
Seebeck called this exchange “educational blackmail,” adding that Michigan was especially vulnerable because of the state’s dire need for education funds. This was caused by the state government’s own inability to allocate more resources to public schools, he said.
“If we’re not going to have to agree to implement processes and programs that we know we don’t need in order to get that money, then it will be a welcomed thing,” Seebeck said, although he expressed worries about federal money going away altogether.
State Superintendent Brian Whiston said that although the Michigan Department of Education has to meet federal regulations, under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), unlike the No Child Left Behind Act, state officials are – for the most part – forging their own path.
Whiston would like to see a further expansion of this kind of freedom, and hopes that DeVos “returns the power to the states, and really gives us the control to decide what should happen to students in our own state and not have the federal government dictate to us,” he said.
“More flexibility and autonomy — that’s what we’ve been expecting with the ESSA,” said Bill DiSessa, a communications specialist for the state Education Department. The act was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2015, before DeVos was nominated, but state department officials hope the new Cabinet secretary will give state officials even more room to implement their own plans for success.
DiSessa is hoping “more elbow room” will allow his department to realize a new plan to become a “top-ten state” in education. The plan for school improvement involves 47 recommendations that are to be implemented over the next couple of years.
“Betsy has a unique insight on the education landscape in Michigan, more than any other state in the nation,” DiSessa said, adding that the state department expects to agree with her on many of the goals they are setting.
Whiston described DeVos “as someone who’s been seen as a disruptor to the system” because of her push for a nontraditional agenda of school choice, charter schools and voucher programs.
“We’ve not been on the same page in our careers and we’ve had our disagreements,” Whiston said. But, “We both are fighting for what we believe in, and we’re fighting for what we think is best for kids. We just have different ideas on how to get there.”
Whiston said he hopes to put any differences of opinion with DeVos aside to work together for Michigan’s children.
Seebeck said he remains skeptical about DeVos’ qualifications for the education secretary position, but is keeping an open mind in the hopes that she will allow for equal room on the playing field for traditional and non-traditional educational schools.
“I am going to watch her with a very keen eye,” he said. But, “I’m willing to give her a chance and see where she takes things.”
BY LAINA STEBBINS