When the history books are written, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s confirmation fight will be remarkable for many reasons: a true outsider who supports all forms of school choice getting the nomination and a historic tie-breaking vote by the vice president to end a 50–50 deadlock in the Senate.

There are lessons to be learned, however, in the aftermath. Lessons whose modules include how to stay focused, how to confuse and co-opt your opposition, and how to exploit deep fissures among your discombobulated resistance. And those lessons were taught, masterfully, by the country’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, to most of us on the political left who work in this thing we call “reform.”

But how did this happen?

Identity crisis

If there was a “Never Trump” camp on the Republican side of the political aisle, for Democrats it was a fortress—with principled barricades and policy crenellations—that cast a long shadow across both the country and the party. Many Democrats saw Donald Trump’s ascendance as a threat not just to traditional Democratic constituencies but to ideologies (feminism, equity, immigration, and tolerance chief among them) that help describe the ethos of the party....

If you want a good cry mixed in with some inspiration, watch noted human rights lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson give a searing account of bias against the poor and young men of color in a TED Talk about an Injustice. With more than four million views, Stevenson rails against a discriminatory criminal justice system that is disproportionately jailing black men. Indeed, an estimated 516,900 black males were in state or federal prison at year-end 2014, accounting for 37 percent of the male prison population—more than triple their percent in the general population. Asked why the prison population has grown so rapidly, Stevenson says “the great increase in mass incarceration wasn’t really due to violent crime. It was this misguided war on drugs...and three strikes laws that put people in prison forever for low-level property crimes like stealing a bicycle.”

Stevenson is a modern day hero, a fierce advocate for the condemned and wrongly accused. He is right that racism and excessively harsh sentencing laws contribute to the bursting of America’s jails. But even Stevenson’s impassioned oratory does not tell the whole story for why so many crimes are occurring in the first place.

Consider the findings of...

John Schilling

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2017 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts to explain how President Trump should structure his highly anticipated $20 billion school choice proposal. Other entries can be found here.

School choice advocates have a window of opportunity today that we have never had before in the history of our movement. Moments like this, where it is possible to advance bold education reform, are not to be wasted.

Curiously, some school choice advocates are less enthused about congressional action citing the big, bad "feds" getting involved in a state and local issue. Some say there should be no federal role in education, as if the $60 billion currently invested by the federal government in K–12 education would suddenly disappear or would simply be turned over to state education agencies. We like the latter, though we recognize the reality that the ensuing battle would be a seismic shift akin to the battle over welfare reform in the 1990's. That requires time to properly make the case to skeptical policymakers. Some believe things are percolating along nicely in the states and adding money to state choice programs is unnecessary. For those in the...

Thomas W. Carroll

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2017 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts to explain how President Trump should structure his highly anticipated $20 billion school choice proposal. Other entries can be found here.

During the Presidential campaign in 2016, one of President Donald Trump’s central campaign promises was a $20 billion school-choice plan.

Now that Trump is in office, the quickest route to school choice in all fifty states is the adoption of a federal tax credit that encourages individuals and corporations to donate more money to nonprofit scholarship funds.

From a taxpayer’s perspective, under this plan, the tax savings you would receive for a donation to a scholarship fund would be greater than under current law. Currently, such a scholarship donation would be like any other charitable donation. If you are in the 35 percent tax bracket, you would receive 35 cents back for every dollar donated. Once this is turned into a scholarship tax credit, instead of a simple deduction, you would receive $1 back for every $1 donated.

This simple change is like putting charitable donations for scholarship funds on steroids. A lot more people would donate, and thus a lot...

Editor's note: This letter appeared in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's 2016 Annual Report. To learn more, download the report.

Dear Fordham Friends,

For many of us, 2016 was a year to be forgotten, thanks to the nastiest, most divisive election in our lifetimes. Sadly, the stresses and animosities of Trump versus Clinton spilled into the education debate as well, raising the temperature many degrees and at times pitting natural reform allies against one another. To make matters worse, disappointing findings from the latest PISA study came in like the polar vortex to close out the year. Good riddance to all that!

It wasn’t, however, a complete waste. Real progress was made on several fronts, both nationally and in Fordham’s home state of Ohio. To its credit, the outgoing Administration put the pedal to the metal in implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act. And though sometimes it seemed as if Education Secretary John King and his team were blind to that law’s intent to shrink the federal role, the final accountability regulations released in November 2016 represented a reasonable compromise.

We were ...

Saiying Steenbergen-Hu, Matthew Makel, and Paula Olszewski-Kubilius

Education is not an easy profession. According to the “MetLife Survey of the American Teacher,” teachers and school administrators view managing resources and addressing individual student needs as the biggest challenges in their jobs. For example, 43 percent teachers reported in the 2008 survey that they could not effectively teach because their students’ learning abilities had become so varied. In the 2009 survey, 86 percent of principals and 77 percent of teachers reported that addressing the individual needs of diverse learners could have a major impact on improving student achievement.

What can educators do?

The above problems do not exist because we do not know how to help students with different learning needs learn. Concerned teachers and school leaders can find guidance from a recent study we published in the Review of Educational Research, “What One Hundred Years of Research Says About the Effects of Ability Grouping and Acceleration on K-12 Students’ Academic Achievement: Findings of Two Second-Order Meta-Analysis.” Our review of published research results found that most forms of ability grouping and academic acceleration succeed in addressing the needs of advanced learners without harming (and even helping) learning in other students.

Effective ability grouping involves...

Anne Hyslop

Congress is in recess this week, but when it returns, it is likely that a resolution to rescind the final Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) regulations for accountability, data, and consolidated state plans, using the Congressional Review Act (CRA), will be introduced—a resolution that’s already cleared the House and that is supported by the Trump Administration. But unlike the usual process an agency follows to repeal regulations, after a CRA resolution the Department will be prohibited from issuing (without congressional approval) any set of regulations that are substantially the same.

Brandon Wright and others have already weighed in on some of the implications of this move, and how it could hamper efforts to implement the new law and states’ ability to meaningfully use ESSA to innovate and adopt novel approaches to school accountability and improvement. Rather than provide states and districts with more control over their accountability and improvement systems, as Congress intends, the side effects of the CRA can actually impinge on these efforts.

Certain aspects of the final regulations—the debate over the School Quality or Student Success indicator, or whether states must produce a summative rating—are well understood and have been thoroughly debated over...

Christy Wolfe

As a mom of three children, I’ve learned that structure and a few rules can make life much more enjoyable for everyone, including the kids. Family rules should be clear, simple, and consistently enforced. Structure in a context of empowerment can make all the difference.

What’s true of families can also be true of the relationship between the federal government and the states. In my eight years working on regulations for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at the U.S. Department of Education, I learned that rules and guidance can be as much about protecting freedom, promoting flexibility, and encouraging state-led innovation as they are about ensuring faithful application of federal laws. In fact, one of the most valuable pieces of guidance the federal government can offer to states is to avoid inferring federal mandates where they don’t exist.

Regulatory clarity is especially valuable when it comes to promoting school choice. Secretary Betsy DeVos now has the opportunity to use federal regulations and guidance to create a safe space for states and local authorities that want to maximize the potential for school choice.

Congress can be vague—on purpose

When Congress agrees on...

As Secretary DeVos and Attorney General Sessions and their teams work down the list of Obama-era mischief that needs reversing, let’s hope that their agencies’ joint 2014 “guidance” regarding school discipline is near the top.

This wasn’t a formal rule that can only be undone by engaging in an elaborate new regulatory process. No, it was actually more insidious than that—but also more easily correctable. It was a menacing, twenty-plus page “dear colleague” letter, co-signed by senior civil rights enforcers in the education and justice departments, and sent around the land to state and local education leaders.

Because it was “guidance” rather than “regulation,” it wasn’t—and isn’t—something that must be obeyed. But it was plenty chilling. Aimed arrow-like at “zero-tolerance” style school discipline as well as racial discrepancies, it said, in effect, that if anyone even hints that your discipline policy shows any of the (numerous) warning signs that suggest to us that discrimination might be occurring—these are itemized at length—our agencies will investigate. And if we find that you’re doing anything wrong, we have another long list at the ready, this time consisting of painful remedies we can apply to you.

As legal scholar Richard Epstein noted in...

A new descriptive study by Marcus Winters examines whether low-performing students are more likely to exit charter schools than surrounding traditional public schools.

We’re all aware of the claim that some charter schools “counsel out” their lowest performing students, so this analysis looks into whether there’s evidence to that claim. Analysts use six years of student-level administrative data from New York City (2006–12) and Denver (2007–13), two large urban districts with growing and effective charter sectors. They use test scores from grades 3–8, which are combined into one math-ELA standardized measure for each student by grade and year.

The researchers find that low-performing students are on average more mobile than their higher-performing peers. Yet low-performing students in both cities are either equally likely or less likely to exit their charter schools than are students in traditional public schools. In particular, in New York City, low performers are about 5 percentage points less likely to exit their charter school than their traditional school. In Denver, there is no statistical difference between the sectors.

This study does not get into the more qualitative question of whether schools are pushing students out. Yet, the analysts conclude: “[I]f attrition of low-performing students is...