Why Secretary DeVos Must Champion Course Choice
With the 100-day mark in the rearview mirror, it seems clear that Donald Trump’s campaign promise for a large federal school choice initiative is going nowhere fast. But for all the political and structural barriers to aggressively expanding vouchers or charter schools, there’s nothing stopping Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from championing a form of choice that’s unfortunately too little discussed: course choice. If she decides to step up and use the bully pulpit to encourage states to launch course choice programs, DeVos could do more to expand academic opportunity than any education secretary in history.
Right now, only half of American high schools even offer calculus. Nearly forty percent don’t offer physics. A quarter doesn't offer chemistry, and a quarter doesn't offer any Advanced Placement courses. This isn’t for lack of trying: research by AEI fellow Nat Malkus suggests that AP offerings hit a peak and declined, especially in small rural schools, suggesting that prime culprit for the lack of academic access is simply school capacity. Many schools and districts are simply too small to justify hiring a physics teacher or offering an AP class that only a small number of students might be willing or able to take.
This is a problem that can be solved. Several states, including Louisiana, Utah and Minnesota, have launched statewide course choice (also known as “course access”) programs. While the details vary slightly, the basic idea is this: the state grants students flexibility in a portion of the funding that it sends to their school. For one, two or three class periods a day, instead of heading down the hallway to math class to take Algebra II, they instead take a turn into the computer lab and log onto an online course in calculus. Or, they can take that funding to a local community college if they prefer in-person instruction or to union apprenticeship center to learn a trade-based skill. (If you think it’s expensive to offer AP Calculus as a small rural school, try building a welding shop.)
But beyond problem solving, course access also has the virtue of wide, bipartisan support. In Missouri, where multiple course access bills are being debated currently, the public hearings held by the house and senate saw groups from all across the ideological spectrum support the program, and no one testified in opposition. When was the last time you heard that happen?
Advocacy for course access programs also helps bridge the urban/rural divide in education reform. Rural communities, and their elected representatives, often point out that many education reform ideas might make sense in urban communities, but offer little to rural communities and the issues they face. Course access helps everyone, but rural schools in particular.
So what gives? Why aren’t these programs everywhere? Plain old institutional inertia.
For a course access program to launch, several things need to happen. State legislatures must make an initial and continuing appropriation (and they’re seldom known for their financial largess). State education agencies must pilot and implement a new program (and they’re seldom known for their entrepreneurial initiative). And school districts must make room for students to actually take the courses (and they’re seldom known for their flexibility).
This is where Secretary DeVos can play an indispensable role.
State legislators may know that they have flexibilities under ESSA, but likely few are aware of how they can blend together funding from Titles II and IV to defray the cost of establishing a course access program and utilize Title I funding to cover continuing costs. In fact, states can set aside three percent of Title I funds for this purpose, opening up millions of potential dollars, far more than what it would cost to oversee such a program. Secretary DeVos could cut through the noise and make it clear on the stump, in legislative testimony and in writing exactly how state legislatures can leverage ESSA to defray the cost of course choice.
Secretary DeVos could also convene conferences and gather experts together to study existing programs and offer a blueprint for best practices for state education agencies in implementing such programs.
None of this would be controversial; there’s simply no downside. No student loses anything by getting access to another course. No teacher loses anything when their school can offer an additional subject. And every parent wants their child to have just as many academic opportunities as everyone else.
Secretary DeVos can open up all of these opportunities without pressuring or coercing anyone. She can simply use the bully pulpit to encourage and inform. She can make it her express mission to assure that every student in America has access to every academic course. And while not every state will follow her lead, if even a handful do then millions of students would be able to take courses that their older siblings never had the chance to. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful legacy than that.