University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Heavens to Betsy! What Betsy DeVos Means for Arkansas Students

In The View from the OEP on February 8, 2017 at 11:47 am

Yesterday, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Education. She was a contentious appointment, as reflected by the historic 51 to 50 vote that confirmed her.

In our opinion, DeVos failed to effectively answer questions during her confirmation hearings, and we cringe at her apparent lack of understanding of basic education policy concepts. Honestly, though, it doesn’t matter if she thinks measuring proficiency is more important than measuring growth, or if charters and vouchers are the answer.

What DOES matter is what Arkansans think (and say) about these issues.

What does the DeVos confirmation mean for students in Arkansas?


Not much.

Education is mainly a State and local responsibility. The federal government provides only a small share of Arkansas’ education funding (approximately 10%). These funds are used to support the education of students in poverty and those with disabilities. Withholding these funds is the only leverage that the federal government has over State and local decisions about education, and although federal funds were withheld from some school districts that refused desegregation in the 1960s, withholding these funds isn’t a current reality.

In addition, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes extensive limitations to the Education Secretary’s role.

Language in ESSA prohibits the Secretary from:

  • any influence in academic standards,
  • requiring additional assessment reporting requirements, data elements or information to be reported,
  • adding any new rules to statewide accountability requirements,
  • requiring states to add or delete any elements to the state plans,
  • prescribing specific goals or specific assessments or specific indicators,
  • prescribing the weight of any indicators or a specific methodology,
  • prescribing specific school improvement or support strategies, or
  • prescribing any parameter of a teacher or principal evaluation system.

Essentially, ESSA makes it clear that education is a State matter, and states get to make their own decisions.


Who DOES make these decisions for Arkansas students?


Academic Standards and Accountability:  The State Board of Education adopts the academic standards for Arkansas, and the Arkansas Department of Education is currently developing the state’s accountability plan.

Under ESSA there are a few things that states must measure: Proficiency rates, graduation rates, and English Language Learner progress in attaining proficiency in English. Other measures can be selected by states. How DO we feel about measuring student growth? Do we want to include a growth measure in our school accountability plan? What other indicator of school quality is important? We don’t have to ask Betsy- she’s not allowed to tell us (and likely couldn’t) – because WE get to choose what we think are important outcomes for our schools.

ADE has been on a listening tour to find out what folks around the state thought were important outcomes for schools. You can see the feedback here.

In addition, a group of stakeholder representatives meets monthly to discuss the development of the ESSA plan. Last month they learned about issues like determining the minimum number of students required in a particular student group for them to be included in accountability calculations (aka the Minimum N), and examined differences in 4, 5 and 6 year graduation rates. You can see the information presented here.  Both of these topics may sound boring, but they can have BIG IMPACTS when it comes to school accountability.

Unlike Secretary DeVos, you DO have a voice in Arkansas education. Stay informed about our ESSA plan by signing up here and share your thoughts about the future of Arkansas education by emailing

If you care about education, you should also pay attention to what is happening in the state legislature.  Many education issues are decided by the legislature, and there are several education-related bills currently on the agenda in the House and Senate Education Committees.

Voucher Programs:

Arkansas currently has a voucher program for special education students, and there is a bill currently in the House that would create a universal voucher opportunity for Arkansas. Any voucher system in Arkansas would have to be legislated through our state officials, or enacted through changes to the federal tax code.


Charter Schools:

Arkansas law established an initial cap on the number of open-enrollment charter schools allowed in the state at 24. The cap is automatically increased by five spots when the number of charter schools is within two of meeting the existing cap. The cap currently stands at 29, and there are 24 active open-enrollment charters in the state.

A dedicated and professional group of educators serve as the Charter Authorizing Panel. The Panel carefully considers each new application and renewal request before making recommendations to the State Board of Education. These recommendations for charter authorizations, renewals, or closures must be approved or denied by the State Board of Education.

Any expansion of charter schools in Arkansas would be in increments of 5 schools annually and would only be possible if increasing numbers of charter schools applied and were approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel and the State Board of Education.

If Betsy DeVos grabbed your attention, we recommend shifting your focus to Arkansas.  Education is local and your opinions can influence important decisions happening now.


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