Q+A: Does DeVos’ “Academic Freedom” Theme Fit Urban Education?


On March 11, President Trump released his Fiscal Year 2020 Budget which included, overall, a proposed $8.5 billion cut to the Department of Education’s spending. Thursday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos sat before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee to explain how this budget would help students, educators and parents achieve “Academic Freedom” – the central theme purported in its proposal.

Drexel University School of Education interim dean and professor Penny Hammrich, PhD, explains how concepts like school choice, teacher vouchers and scholarships could influence the way students learn, achieve and grow – and how results may vary, particularly for those in urban education environments, like Philadelphia.

DeVos describes “Academic Freedom” as the ability to achieve a great education regardless of where a student lives; who a student knows; or a student’s family income. In urban school districts, how might this policy benefit or hinder a child’s education?

Every child should have access to an excellent education regardless of where they live. Schools should have proper resources including appropriate staff, technology, and learning materials to properly educate and meet the needs of all their students. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case for school districts in cities like Philadelphia.

The idea of “Academic Freedom” is a noble one, but when put into practice, has the potential to cause harm to districts, schools, and families. “Academic Freedom” or school choice policies and initiatives should be equitable in the private school admissions process and should not cause any harm, financial or otherwise, to public school districts.

The budget includes a $5 billion federal tax credit program that would fund scholarships to private schools, vouchers, and other educational programs. How might students in urban education settings benefit (or not) from Education Freedom Scholarships? 

Students in urban education settings could stand to benefit from Education Freedom Scholarships, but as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” I am not sure how scholarships would be awarded. Would all students, regardless of their current academic performance challenges, disabilities, physical needs, etc. be eligible for admission at the private schools covered by the program? Is a voucher program something that leaders and stakeholders in education in Philadelphia want? Could tax credits that generate funding for evidence-based learning enrichment programs, tools, and technology for urban public schools be more effective in achieving positive learning outcomes for students? Finding ways to bring additional funding into education is certainly commendable, but those funds should benefit all students, not a privileged few.

The Department of Education’s budget eliminated the $2.1 billion Title II grant program that funds reductions in class sizes and professional development programs for teachers and principals. In its place, the department is proposing $200 million to fund a professional development voucher program that teachers could apply for to use for programs of their choice. Is this enough? And is this the right direction for unique challenges and needs of urban educators?

Obviously, eliminating $2.1 billion in Title II funding will have a tremendous impact on class sizes, particularly in poorer school districts like Philadelphia where class sizes have been a major concern for years.

Equally as obvious is that $200 million pales in comparison to previous levels of funding when it comes to professional development programs for teachers. Professional development is a critical tool for teachers to help them sharpen their skills, learn new pedagogical methods, and see new advances in technology to help them be more effective in their classrooms.

The Department of Education claims that the $200 million will provide vouchers to allow teachers to choose which programs they want to enroll in, but more questions need to be answered. How specifically can teachers choose their professional development programs? Are there any restrictions on which programs vouchers can be used for? Giving teachers more flexibility to choose professional development programs that best suit their needs is a good idea, but teachers should not be restricted in their choices, and the level of funding is far less than what is needed.

The Department of Education is proposing an increase in $60 million for federal funding for charter schools while cutting $7.1 billion from other programs. Is this a wise strategy for improving learning for all children, particularly those living in urban environments?

Providing additional funding for charter schools to help improve their educational programs is certainly good news for charter schools, but the $7.1 billion cut to the rest of the education system is what is really most concerning. While the School District of Philadelphia receives the vast majority of its funding from state and local sources, the federal cut to education will no doubt be felt in some way in Philadelphia, as well as other urban school districts across the country.

What types of measures are most beneficial to urban educators, students and parents? Are they adequately represented in the budget’s proposal?

Schools flourish when they are equipped with excellent teachers who have research-driven tools to help them educate today’s students. At Drexel, we are leading the federally funded Promise Neighborhood initiative with the School District of Philadelphia, the Mayor’s Office, and local civic and community groups to give schools located in the federally-designated Promise Zone the resources they want and need to achieve success. Initiatives like this one are examples of wise investments in education. Schools in the promise neighborhood, such as Morton McMichael School, have reported large gains in academic achievement thanks in no small part to this initiative. When all partners – university, city, school district, and community – are working together, success is inevitable.

Media interested in speaking with Hammrich should contact Emily Storz, els332@drexel.edu or 215.895.2705.

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