Virtual schooling could see push under new administration

Tapped by President-elect Trump for the role of Education secretary, philanthropist and school voucher proponent Betsy DeVos could make a push for virtual schooling as indicated by some of her affiliations.

As board chairman for the American Federation for Children, DeVos has worked to allow the use of federal dollars to encourage states to make school choice available to students, including vouchers that let families take public funding to the public or private school of their choice, including potentially for-profit, virtual and faith-based schools.

She told Philanthropy Roundtable in 2013 that she anticipates digital and blended learning to “contribute” to the school choice movement, despite its relative infancy in K-12 public education.

“It would be unconscionable not to embrace [technology] and use it to help kids achieve their full potential in every way possible,” DeVos told the group.

On the other hand, any existing federal support and affiliation for Obama administration programs concerning educational technology — including ConnectED, Future Ready and the #GoOpen campaign — “could get halted, shifted or eliminated on the first day of a Trump administration,” Doug Levin, founder and president of EdTech Strategies, LLC, wrote in a series of recent Twitter posts.

Meanwhile, the Office of Educational Technology will likely see an entirely new staff and director, or existing staffers will get reassigned, said Levin, who worked with the Office of Educational Technology in 1994 and 1995 and has seen the office undergo transitions from the Clinton administration to Bush, from Bush to Obama, and now Obama to Trump, he said in an interview.

“I think it is safe to say that this administration is not going to be carrying on the same priorities as the last,” Levin said. “Without question, every administration that comes in has its own priorities. The thing to know about the Office of Ed-Tech is that it’s an entirely political office, meaning that it is run by political appointees, and it’s directed out of the office of the secretary and coordinates with the White House.”

“Its activities are not dictated by [the Every Student Succeeds Act, Pub. L. 114-95],” Levin continued. “It doesn’t really have a dedicated budget. Basically, it carries the water for the political priorities of the administration.”

He said the Office of Educational Technology will likely go “dormant” the first six months or longer after President-elect Trump takes office in January, as other priorities will take precedence.

“They’re going to need to not only select a secretary, but all of the assistant secretaries and undersecretary, and figure out what their priorities are,” Levin noted. “When the Bush administration came in, that office was dormant and without a director for a year. That’s because [educational technology] was a lower priority in the administration.”

Issue to ‘watch’

By installing DeVos at the helm of the Education Department, Levin purports that the school choice theme will permeate thinking about priorities for the Office of Educational Technology.

Her time chairing the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education signifies that support for virtual schooling as part of the fiercely debated topic of school choice is forthcoming, he said.

Indeed, the foundation has often championed digital learning, competency-based education, and course access programs, a premise allowing public school students to enroll in online, blended, and face-to-face courses and to give a portion of funding generated by that student to flow to the course provider, the website states.

Levin said course access or course “choice” is “another issue to watch in the broader education reform.” A number of states have already moved in this direction, where students are given an expanded course catalogue that includes distance learning options for subjects that are not currently offered in their brick-and-mortar schools.

“A lot of the blended learning movement is really about choice of instructional materials and approaches,” Levin said. “I could certainly see an agenda [in the new administration] that was focused on online schools, course access, course choice and blended learning, which is ‘choice’ within the classroom.”

At this juncture, it’s unclear whether these initiatives will be part of the Trump administration’s to-do list “out the gate,” Levin said.

He expects, however, that “over time, they would come to understand that these ed-tech trends are probably in line with what they’re likely to be advocating for” as part of a broader school choice agenda, and the administration could green-light online modes of schooling through more traditional channels, such as vouchers and charters.

Save the date for LRP’s National Future of Education Technology Conference, to be held Jan. 24-27, 2017, at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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